Review

Doth not Wisdom Cry?: Thoughts on Martin’s Sophia in Exile

A detail of the statue of Sophia on the facade of the Celsus Library in Ephesus.

Photo: © José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro / CC BY-SA 3.0

If [you would go] down to Egypt and bring us back the pearl, which is in the middle of the sea surrounded by the hissing serpent, then … with your brother, our second in command, you will be heir in our kingdom.’ I went straight to the serpent, but … I forgot that I was a son of kings … and I forgot the pearl … my parents perceived [my oppression], and were grieved for me…they wrote a letter to me … ‘From your father, the king of kings, and your mother, the governor of the East, and from your brother … to you, our son, who is in Egypt, peace. Awake and arise from your sleep.

So goes the “Hymn of the Pearl,” a (probably) second century Syriac text contained in the apocryphal “Acts of Thomas.” And it is with a meditation on this allegory that Michael Martin begins his Sophia in Exile, the third instalment in a trilogy dealing with the mysterious figure of the Biblical Sophia, “Wisdom:”

Doth not wisdom cry? … I wisdom dwell with prudence … The Lord possessed me in the beginning … I was set up from everlasting … Now therefore hearken unto me, O ye children: for blessed are they that keep my ways … For whoso findeth me findeth life, and shall obtain favour of the Lord. But he that sinneth against me wrongeth his own soul: all they that hate me love death. (Prov. 8)

In those complicated theodysseys produced by Gnostic heresies during the early centuries of Christianity, Sophia was said to have fallen from higher realms, forgetting God and birthing a monstrous child who is the true lord of the material cosmos. Through the “Hymn of the Pearl,” however, Martin recasts the familiar Gnostic theme of Sophia’s exile as, in truth, our exile from her. We are the wayward son who has forgotten himself while retrieving the pearl, and we are called back home to rule with our elder brother (Christ). Indeed, in ancient sources, Sophia does not leave heaven, but earth, on account of human wrongdoing: 

Wisdom could not find a place in which she could dwell; but a place was found in the heavens. (1 Enoch 42)

Martin describes our error and existential exile as

a civilization marked by alternate realities, whether they be through video gaming, pharmacological sedation, propaganda wars, mass surveillance, or the infinite varieties of distractions at our disposal, all implicit in our estrangement from the Real.

Sophia is the mediatrix between divinity and creation, so that our ignorance of her is a misapprehension of creation such that it seems to lack transcendence. Without Wisdom, there is no bridge between mere creation and its source. Nature, to us, becomes a dead substance (Latin natura, rather than Greek phusis, as Heidegger would have it).

We abstain from exploring the theological account of Sophia produced by the Russian Sophiologists, and how they relate to Biblical scholar Margaret Barker’s work, on which Martin draws. Suffice it to note that Martin’s usage is generally that of Sergei Bulgakov, for whom “the Divine Sophia” is the first thought in the mind of God, so to speak, subsequently instantiated in an ideal creation “the creaturely Sophia,” or world-soul (in my reading, these map tidily onto Plato’s schema in the Timaeus). 

Sophia is the true image of nature. When she is lost, nature becomes deathly (“all they that hate me love death”). If nature does not participate in the Logos, it is instead seen as formless substance to which order is ultimately alien. Chaos rather than cosmos. In human terms, this chaos resembles something like self-cannibalizing hunger. At best, when reality is not in a state of entropic miasma (towards which the second law of thermodynamics will implacably return it) it forms a vast zero-sum mechanism of predators and prey. There is no peace in which to rest, and so we who inhabit it are ever anticipating and placating the hunger of a volatile world, lest it grow so hungry as to consume us. Any creative act is also an act of cruelty, for nothing can be brought forth without something being brought low. 

It was this terrible misapprehension, the divorce of feminine nature from humanity, that led to what William Blake calls the “female will” of the “Druidical age” of human sacrifice—world-wide apostasy in which bloody priesthoods took hold according to the poet’s historiography, replacing a prior patriarchal order. That goddess-worship which Robert Graves celebrates in his work, then, Blake sees as a terrible decadence. In his Fearful Symmetry, Northrop Frye points out that the troubadours and Arthurian lore around the grail were, for Blake, examples of a resurgent Druidic goddess cult. 

Martin would beg to differ, seeing these as a Sophianic restoration, albeit short lived. Indeed, Blake’s celebration of that tradition according to which Joseph of Arimathea arrived at the British Isles bearing the grail indicates that the sacred cup is not a symbol of the dark feminine. For Blake, Joseph of Arimathea is “a kind of druid who had recovered the light and recognized the divinity of man in Jesus,” as Tobias Churton puts it, and so the grail may likewise be understood as the restored earth (Bake’s suspicion of the medieval romances is consistent with the tales themselves, given Arthur’s fate, to the effect that they their promise is yet to be fulfilled). For Bulgakov, as Martin notes, the whole earth is the grail, for the ground received blood and water from Christ’s spear-wound at Calvary. What reveals the truth of things, then, a world not as ravenous nature but as holy grail, is self-sacrifice. 

The vision of nature restored is discussed in terms of that account in Plutarch that declares the death of the god Pan at the time of the crucifixion of Jesus, which some interpreted to mean that demonic nature was dead, and others that Christ himself, as Pan (“All”), had died to resurrect. We may notice some relevance here to our present pharmo-political Druidical caste’s demands for sacrifice until the dangers of nature abate, the pandemic (pan-intended), but this deserves its own, longer exploration.

To see nature aright, we must participate in what Martin calls harmonia mundi, for she is not an object to be observed, but a living rhythm, only knowable from within:

Contemplation, I say, is primarily our natural state of being as it renders us mindful of both God and Creation, as well as their metaxu, Sophia.

To become attuned we must engage in a creative project, a liturgical dance. This is achievable if creativity is engaged from that “natural state” of contemplation (or reverie) wherein one is aware “of both God and Creation.” To be an artist, one’s imagination must be baptized, as the Inklings, Tolkien and Co., would put it. Martin describes true creativity as theurgy (the work of God):

The creative act, then, is ultimately a theurgic act, an act of divine healing that changes the structure of the cosmos…As [Nikolai] Berdyaev says, “The theurge, working together with God, creates the cosmos; creates beauty as being.”

As a farmer and bee-keeper, Martin highlights “bees and the making of honey” as perhaps the most “fitting image of theurgy.” Yet, if self-sacrifice is the key to the grail, it is only thereby that we can come to know genuine creativity. Martin cites Virgil’s Georgics and the sacrifice of the bull in order to breed bees and found a beehive. Historically, Virgil has been treated as a pre-Christian visionary, and we may certainly read the bull sacrifice as pointing to the cross. Martin’s emphasis on the slaying of the bull reigniting natural processes (bees are essential in the life of flowers) and the production of sweetness (honey) links it to Bulgakov’s idea that it is the death of the Lamb that makes the world holy. We are dealing with self-sacrifice, unselfishness, as key to entering that contemplative state or reverie mentioned above, the middle between God and Creation where Wisdom dwells, and from which truly redemptive creative works may flow.

One element to which seeking after harmony can make us privy, says Martin, is that of certain unseen influences—the invisible fauna to which every nation’s folklore attests—the faeries. He concludes his exploration of the subject as follows:

the never-ending cycle of destruction … that have wreaked so much havoc on Creation, have demoralized them … Nevertheless, I believe with Tolkien that they can be found and brought together if the world be broken and remade. Broken it is, we cannot deny. We have only to begin the charm of remaking…

The “charm of remaking” would make a fine subtitle for Sophia in Exile. This topic deserves its own, fuller discussion. I will not dwell on it except to note that the genie genus is traditionally known to include malevolent as well as benevolent denizens, and while technological determinism and destructiveness has frightened some away, it seems to be hospitable to others. Re-enchantment will require discernment.

How then, do we exercise discernment? The same way we distinguish theurgic creativity from the kind that constantly churns out new exilic technologies (the “infinite varieties of distractions” leading to our “estrangement from the Real”); through a kind of regard for things, a caring, a shepherding disposition born of self-sacrifice. That contemplative awareness in which we know that the Real is pacific, and not a chaotic flux that must be borne down upon with violence in order to gain security. Martin’s approach leads away from contemplation without creativity, without the shepherding of the world, as much as it leads away from creativity without contemplation. 

One of the greatest benefits to reading Sophia in Exile are the many avenues it points to through which one might connect organically with this kind of creativity—authors, most of them previously unknown to me, like Thomas Vaughan, Mechthild of Magdeburg, Marguerite Porete, Ralph Cudworth, Kenneth Rexroth, Charles Williams, Thomas Taherne, Robert Fludd, Jacob Boehme, Rudolf Steiner and many more. For my part, I would highlight three of the tenderest examples: Thomas Vaughan’s dream of his deceased wife in heaven, Ellenore Farjeon’s poem, “Farewell, you children that I might have borne,” and the ballad of Tam Lin. This latter is a knight–enchanted by the faerie queen–who tells his beloved Margaret that, as she carries him out from faerie phantasms, they will seem to transform him in various ways, but however terrible, he implores her, “hold me close and fear me not.” 

These three pertain to marriage, another of Martin’s principal themes. Just as true creativity occurs between knowledge of the divine and creation, so too the space between the human counterparts of these, the bridegroom and the bride, is the locus where new life is born, and in which most people mature spiritually. If Sophia is between Creator and Creation, she is also between the human icons of these. The male-female pair is central to Sophia in Exile.

Martin cites Pope Benedict XIV’s Deus Caritas Est encyclical to the effect that the purpose of human eros is iconic:

Marriage based on exclusive and definitive love becomes the icon of the relationship between God and his people and vice versa…This close connection between eros and marriage in the Bible has practically no equivalent in extra-biblical literature.

And from the Eastern Orthodox Jonathan Tobias: 

The exclusiveness of marriage is not a limit, a temporary dispensation, or even a prophetic symbol whose identity will be subsumed by the eschaton. Rather, the ‘exclusiveness’ that chastity establishes, in cooperation with Grace, is a new body with an identity that will remain and grow ever in deification.

In this context, Martin explores the idea that marriage, being an icon for Christ and the Church (Barker might say, for Logos and Sophia, or for the Son and Spirit), transcends its merely social and biological utility. There is no reason to consider the particularity of bonds between persons as temporary if the persons themselves are considered immortal. What is eschatologically abolished is that which is an icon of nothing, what lacks the Real, that is, institutions based on cruelty, denigration, predation. 

Martin takes the Orphic and Platonic idea of androgyny as the original human state seriously, but does not see it as a lack of gender. Rather, the primordial androgyn is the male-female pair in its unity. Commenting on the scripture according to which, in the resurrection, “they are not given in marriage” (Matt 22:30), Martin cites the mystic Emanuele Swedenborg to the effect that a heavenly marriage begins on earth and is not repeated later in heaven. This interpretation is made possible because the passage does not say there will be no married state in the resurrection, and relates to the idea that the Church has authority to bind on earth and in heaven (Matt 16:19, 18:18).

The human institution of marriage, then, would bespeak a higher spiritual station. Bulgakov considers gender to be archetypal. Of the “male and the female in and of themselves, outside the fall,” he writes that “[o]riginally they are spiritual principles, some sort of spiritual qualifications.” The sophiologist Vladimir Solovyov (on whom Dostoyevsky apparently based the character of Alyosha Karamazov) noted that the pleasure of mating in a species is negatively correlated to its capacity for reproduction. Insects produce vast numbers of offspring without seeming particularly disposed to romance, whereas humans, by comparison, produce only a few children, yet we are by far the more romantic species. Martin quotes Solovyov as follows: “The higher we ascend in the hierarchy of organisms, the weaker the power of propagation becomes, but, on the other hand, the greater the power of sexual attraction…” 

Through Solovyov, we return to the idea of sacrifice, of going “beyond the limits of our empirical personality” and so crossing that metaxu in which Sophia dwells, realizing transcendence as “our capacity to transcend our factual phenomenal being…to live not only in ourselves, but also in another.” This consists of “a chemical union of two beings, of the same nature and of equal significance,” for there must be equal dignity and equivalent natures for true reciprocity to occur. Romantic love, then, is ecstatically self-denying, the force through which spouses sacrifice for each other and for their household. Again, spouses are figures for blood and water flowing from a wound that makes the world into the holy grail, as well as for the holy blood and holy grail. This is where the animal self (Virgil’s bull) is slain, and honey is made. It is no wonder that an un-Sophianic culture would promote enmity between men and woman, viewing history as a protracted conflict of the genders and marriage as a procrustean bed, with procreation contradictorily thought of both as unnecessary burden and selfish environmentally-harmful indulgence.

At one point, Martin wonders whether “the discovery of the treasure troves of Gnostic scriptures found at Qumran and Nag Hammadi immediately following World War II really was a ‘coincidence’.” This is fitting, for the Gospel of Philip, found among those long-buried apocrypha, considers marriage the sacramental locus of renewing creation and obtaining salvation, “Great is the mystery of marriage! For without it, the world would not exist” and:

If the woman had not separated from the man, she should not die with the man … separation became the beginning of death … Christ came to repair the separation … and again unite the two, and to give life to those who died as a result of the separation, and unite them. But the woman is united to her husband in the bridal chamber. Indeed, those who have united in the bridal chamber will no longer be separated.

It also presents marriage and its mysteries as a spiritual safeguard,

The forms of evil spirit include male ones and female ones … they detain him if he does not receive a male power or a female power, the bridegroom and the bride. When the wanton women see a male sitting alone, they leap down on him … So also the lecherous men, when they see a beautiful woman sitting alone … But if they see the man and his wife sitting beside one another, the female cannot come into the man, nor can the male come into the woman. 

Implicit throughout Sophia in Exile is the idea that, if the married couple are an icon for the relations of Divine attributes or persons, and for the relation of the transcendent to the imminent, it is by awarding their union its proper dignity that we begin to understand its reality, thereby ending our exile from the Real, in turn calling Sophia back to the earth—or so it will appear from our perspective, for she was never truly gone.

Carlos Perona Calvete has a background in International Relations and Organizational Behavior, and has worked mainly in the field of European project management and policy research.

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