Welcome: An Introduction

Sharing the insights I discover as I explore and experience the mystery that is our reality. Join me in my journey and share yours.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Hagia Sophia: God's Feminine Side (Thomas Merton)

Victor Hammer, an artist born in Vienna in 1882, after moving to the United States became acquainted with Thomas Merton. "On one of Merton's visits to his home, he asked him to identify a painting he had done of a woman with a young boy standing before her, on whom she is placing a crown. He said he had intended a madonna and child, but he no longer knew who she was. Merton said: 'I know who she is. I have always known her. She is Hagia Sophia.' Later Hammer asked Merton to put in writing what he had said. He did so in the following letter."
                               ~ A Life in Letters: The Essential Collection, p. 183-184

When I read this letter, by Thomas Merton to Victor Hammer I was immediately inspired to share it with everyone. It brings up ideas that I had come across but never in such entirety of expression before and would love other's thoughts on this. Perhaps the term and reality of "Hagia Sophia" might be famliar already to some reading this that might come from a Catholic background...or have had formal religious traning...but from someone like me, who has been exclusively by default in protestant circles, I am totally unfamiliar with the concept though find it intriguing. Anyways..please enjoy the letter and I'd love to hear any thoughts or ideas towards this subject. The letter comes from the same source as the above quote.

(Note: I put some parts in bold that I, personally, found intriguing.)

May 14, 1959

I have not rushed to reply to your letter-first, because I have been a little busy, and second, because it is most difficult to write anything that really makes sense about this most mysterious reality in the mystery of God-Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom).

The first thing to be said, of course, is that Hagia Sophia is God Himself. God is not only a Father but a Mother. He is both at the same time, and it is the "feminine aspect" or "feminine principle" in the divinity that is the Hagia Sophia. But of course as soon as you say this the whole thing becomes misleading: a division of an "abstract" divinity into two abstract principles. Nevertheless, to ignore this distinction is to lose touch with the fullness of God. This is a very ancient intuition of reality which goes back to the oldest Oriental thought...For the "masculine-feminine" relationship is basic in all reality-simply because all reality mirrors the reality of God.

In its most primitive aspect, Hagia Sophia is the dark, nameless Ousia (Being) of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, the incomprehensible, "primoridial" darkness which is infinite light. The Three Divine Persons, each at the same time, are Sophia and manifest her. But where the Sophia of your picture comes in is this: the wisdom of God, "reaching from end to end mightily" is also the Tao, the nameless pivot of all being and nature, the center and meaning of all, that which is the smallest and poorest and most humble of all: the "feminine child" playing before God the Creator in His universe, "playing before Him at all times, playing in the world" (Proverbs 8)...This feminine principle in the universe is the inexhaustible source of creative realizations of the Father's glory in the world and is in fact the manifestation of His glory. Pushing it further, Sophia in ourselves is the mercy of God, the tenderness which by the infinitely mysterious power of pardon turns darkness of our sins into the light of God's love.

Hence, Sophia is the feminine, dark, yielding, tender counterpart of the power, justice, creative dynamism of the Father.

Now the Blessed virgin is the one created being who in herself realizes perfectly all that is hidden in Sophia. She is a kind of personal manifestation of Sophia. She crowns the Second Person of the Trinity with His human nature (with what is weak, able to suffer, able to be defeated) and sends Him forth with His mission of inexpressible mercy, to die for man on the cross, and this death, followed by the Resurrection, is the greatest expression of the "manifold wisdom of God" which unites us all in the mystery of Christ- the Church. Finally, it is the Church herself, properly understood as the great manifestation of the mercy of God, who is the revelation of Sophia in the sight of the angels.

The key to the whole thing is, of course, mercy and love. In the sense that God is Love, is Mercy, is Humility, is Hiddenness, He shows Himself to us within ourselves as our own poverty, our own nothingness (which Christ took upon Himself, ordained for this by the Incarnation in the womb of the Virgin) (the crowning in your picture), and if we receive the humility of God into our hearts, we become able to accept and embrace and love this very poverty, which is Himself and His Sophia. And then the darkness of Wisdom becomes to us inexpressible light. We pass through the center of our own nothingness into the light of God...

The beauty of all creation is a reflection of Sophia living and hidden in creation. But it is only our reflection. And the misleading thing about beauty, created beauty, is that we expect Sophia to be simply a more intense and more perfect and more brilliant; unspoiled, spiritual revelation of the same beauty. Whereas to arrive at her beauty we must pass through an apparent negation of created beauty, and to reach her light we must realize that in comparision with created light it is a darkness. But this is only because created beauty and light are ugliness and darkness compared with her. Again, the whole thing is in the question of mercy, which cuts across the divisions and passes beyond every philosophical and religious ideal. For Sophia is not an ideal, not an abstraction, but the highest reality, and the highest reality must manifest herselt to us not only in power but also in poverty, otherwise we never see it. Sophia is the Lady Poverty to whom St. Francis was married. And of course she dwelt with the Desert Fathers in their solitude, for it was she who brought them there and she whom they knew there. It was with her that they conversed all the time in their silence...

                         ~ Thomas Merton

Blessings to Everyone...Happy New Year!


  1. I will have to ponder this. It rings of new age thought going around since the 17th century. But I have no comment on it as Melton combines poetry with theology. I need time to separate the two. I know God never referred to Himself as feminine. I do think there is error in ascribing human traits to a Holy God. Wisdom was referred to in the feminine form in the book of Proverbs, but that is to get a point across. Nice thought provoking article though Jess! :)

  2. Ed, thank you so much for your comment. Yeah, the ideas that Merton express are certainly intriguing and deserving of reflection and research...though as of yet, I'm not sure I entirely agree with them personally 100%

    When it comes to ascribing human traits to a Holy God, I agree...though you can see just that in the scriptures..especially in the OT...like with the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. In Genesis 18:20-21 It says:

    20 Then the LORD said, “The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous 21 that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me. If not, I will know.

    Obviously a God such as we have..a mighty God who is omnipotent and omnicient wouldn't need to go down and see what was happening, He'd already know. But in the OT you see examples of this type of writing referring to God in an anthropomorphic way...the reason...perhaps for the readers to be able to understand and relate more to the motives of God. I'm not quite certain, but that's how I've heard it described.

    Anyways, thanks so much for the comments. I'm glad you found it thought provoking! I did too!

    ~abundant blessings,

  3. I would strongly suggest that you folks do some research on the poem that Merton wrote entitled Hagia Sophia. There is no doubt that Hagia Sophia is only an aspect of God's work in creation, a created reflection of the Word or Logos in John 1; you find the basic theology of this in the writings of St. Athanasius in the 4th century! We seem not to be reading the Liturgy of the Hours, where all these patristic texts are part of the Office of Readings. What is most important about Merton's insights about Hagia Sophia (for which read a great article on this by Christopher Pramuk) is that it shows a way within God's creation for compassion and deep understanding to arise within our human relationships and in our care for the created order, the very things Merton celebrated in Seeds of Contemplation back in 1949. Nothing new, in other words, but something worth saying in new ways again and again. With love,

  4. greetings ________________

    darkness *

    as a flower
    blooms *

    the years
    days of noon *

    the nights
    array *

    of the day *

    Blessings ______________________________