Hagia Sophia Crowning the Youthful Christ
“Wisdom will honor you if you embrace Her. She will place on your head a fair garland; She will bestow on you a beautiful crown.”
“When I was still a youth, before I went traveling, in my prayers I asked outright for Wisdom. Outside the sanctuary I would pray for Her, and to the last I shall continue to seek Her...by bowing my ear a little, I have received Her, and have found much instruction. Thanks to her I have advanced; glory be to Him who has given me Wisdom...Come close to me, take your place in my school. Why complain about lacking these things when your souls are so thirsty for them?
...My child, if you aspire to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for an ordeal. Be sincere of heart, be steadfast, and do not be alarmed when disaster comes. Cling to Him and do not leave Him, so that you may be honored at the end of your days... Look at the generations of old and see: who ever trusted in the Lord and was put to shame? Or who ever called on Him, was forsaken? Or who ever called on Him and was ignored? For the Lord is compassionate and merciful, He forgives sins and saves in the time of distress...”
Ecclesiasticus (from chapters 51 and 2)
It is the Eve of the Second Advent, 2020. I say Second Advent because we’ve been in this Advent since the Ascension of Christ. Before his birth was the First Advent. I’m going to concentrate on icons of (Sophianic) Wisdom during these (always too short for me !) 4 weeks leading up to the Birth of Jesus. I’ve already introduced one, “The Advent of Hagia Sophia.” Because of our more trained-logical nature and schooling in the West, we are not comfortable with concepts like Holy Sophia or Holy Shekhinah (see Rabbi Leah’s beautiful introduction “On the Wings of Shekhinah, 2008). We want exact definitions that we can understand. Yet this also evades us when we try to understand the Holy Spirit or the Holy Trinity. So it’s frustrating for us to be told, you just have to wait patiently, while contemplating these mysteries and allow God to reveal something to you. And just know, it’s been the same journey for me since I first encountered Sophia in 1990 when I began my iconographic apprenticeship. Why Sophia for this year which has been so awfully distressful with so many violent divisions, sicknesses, deaths and for so many, extreme loneliness?
I hope these images I’m going to offer you may begin to answer that question.
Now I’m going to let my dear friend and author, Christopher Pramuk introduce you to this icon for the first week of Advent, 2020.
One day in early 1959, Thomas Merton was visiting with his friends, the Viennese-born artist and printmaker Victor Hammer and his wife Carolyn, at their home in Lexington, Kentucky. As the three sat together at lunch, Merton noticed a triptych that Victor had painted, its central panel depicting the boy Christ being crowned by a dark-haired woman. As the artist would later recall, Merton, while looking at the image, “asked quite abruptly, ‘And who is the woman behind Christ?’” Victor replied, “I do not know yet.” Without further question, “Merton gave his own answer. ‘She is Hagia Sophia, Holy Wisdom, who crowns Christ.’ And this she was—and is.” Some days later Victor wrote to Merton, asking him to expand on his response. Merton obliges in a letter of May 14, 1959:
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. . . . 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.
As the letter continues, Merton’s thoughts seem to spill onto the page as if by stream of consciousness. His friend’s inquiry seems to have unlocked a kind of floodgate in him.
Hagia Sophia, Merton explains, is “the dark, nameless Ousia [Being]” of God, not one of the Three Divine Persons, but each “at the same time, are Sophia and manifest her.” She is “the Tao, the nameless pivot of all being and nature. . . , that which is the smallest and poorest and most humble in all.” She is “the ‘feminine child’ playing before God the Creator in His universe, ‘playing before Him at all times, playing in the world’ (Proverbs 8.” Above all, Sophia is the Love and Mercy of God coming to birth in us. “In the sense that God is Love, is Mercy, is Humility, is Hiddenness,” writes Merton, “He shows Himself to us within ourselves as our own poverty . . . and if we receive the humility of God into our hearts, we become able to . . . love this very poverty, which is Himself and His Sophia.” And then Merton speaks more directly to Victor, who had shared details with him about the genesis of the painting. “The story you tell of its growth is very interesting and revealing and I am sure Hagia Sophia herself was guiding you in the process, for it is she who guides all true artists, and without her they are nothing.”
As he concludes the letter, Merton seems to realize that their conversation has given birth to something significant. He asks his friend, who had printed a number of first editions of Merton’s poetry on his hand press, “Maybe we could make a little broadsheet on Sophia, with the material begun here???” This is precisely what would happen. In January 1962, the prose poem Hagia Sophia came to print in a stunning limited edition on Victor Hammer’s press, with the artist’s icon illustrating the text. The poem would finally become the centerpiece of the collection Emblems of a Season of Fury, published in the same year.
Why place “Hagia Sophia,” an enigmatic poem evoking the feminine divine, at the very center of a collection that includes devastating poems on racism (“And the Children of Birmingham”), genocide (“Chant to Be Used in Processions around a Site with Furnaces”), and political oppression (“A Picture of Lee Ying”)? Why is faith in Sophia, as Merton suggests, “the great stabilizer for peace” in an era of unspeakable suffering and violence, not least violence against the earth? In a word: why Sophia? And I think the answer has to do with hope, that is to say, faith’s affirmation of divine and human possibilities even, if not especially, in those places and moments that seem by all rational accounts God-forsaken, devoid of hope, void of life, of goodness, of humanity. She is the Child who is prisoner in all the people, and who says nothing. . . She smiles, for though they have bound her, she cannot be a prisoner.
The constellation of influences and events over the course of many years by which the poem Hagia Sophia would gestate and finally come to birth in Merton can teach us something beautiful, it seems to me, about how God works in each of us: by invitation and by stealth, if you will, never by coercion, drawing us with mercy and patience toward the way of peace, truth, and nonviolence. Indeed, given Merton’s artistic sensibilities, it is not surprising that a significant “flash point” or pivotal realization of Sophia into his consciousness would come as he gazed on a work of sacred art. “It is she who guides all true artists,” as Merton tells his friend, “and without her they are nothing.” But with her, as Merton implies, the artist comes alive in each of us.
“There lives the dearest freshness deep down things,” writes the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. In other words, grace builds on nature. Human beings—through “God’s Art and Incarnation” coming to birth in each of us—must learn to labor with God in and through “found materials,” in the ordinary and utterly unique stuff of our own lives. Not least, we are called to work in creative harmony with the beautiful, suffering Earth and all of her creatures. Like Merton, we must learn to read the signs of the times with penetration.
And with Her, learning to hear and trust in Her voice, we can begin again to respond to the crises of our times with receptivity and creativity, generosity and hope.
Deep is the ocean, boundless sweetness, kindness, humility, silence of wisdom that is not abstract, disconnected, fleshless. Awakening us gently when we have exhausted ourselves to night and to sleep. O Dawn of Wisdom!
~ journal, July 2, 1960
Faith in Sophia, natura naturans, the great stabilizer today—for peace.
The basic hope that people have that man will somehow not be completely destroyed is hope in natura naturans.
—The dark face, the “night face” of Sophia—pain, trouble, pestilence.
~ journal entry, January 1961
His rebellion is the rebellion of life against inertia, of mercy and love against tyranny, of humanity against cruelty and arbitrary violence. And he calls upon the feminine, the wordless, the timelessly moving elements to witness his sufferings. Earth hears him.
~ “Prometheus: A Meditation,” 1960