Dec 062012
 

Take notice that this is a meditation, and not a neatly linear exposition on these matters. If you manage to bear with me, we’re going to loop around and through various points, with little concern for being tangential and repetitive. It’s going to be downright scattered! I wouldn’t blame you if you don’t finish. Still, there is a method to this madness.

Last year I began my Advent meditation by putting myself in the place of Mary and Joseph on the road to Bethlehem. In fact, for many years now my heart and mind have increasingly been drawn to them, and especially to Mary, during the Advent and Christmas season. As some of you know, I adhere to a Sophianic tradition of Christianity. In short, Mary is venerated as not only the Mother of Christ, Vessel of the Holy Spirit, but also as an embodiment of Sophia, the Wisdom of God. This identity parallels that of Jesus being venerated as an embodiment of Logos, the Word or Reason of God. (For many Christians, even Sophianic ones, it is considered heresy to connect Mary and Sophia in this way.) In this year’s Advent meditation, I want to share more of my exploration of some of these issues.

As with Christologies and theologies, there are differences from one Sophiology or Mariology to another in how we conceptualize the nature of Sophia and Mary’s relationship with Sophia. For some Sophianic Christians, including me, Sophia is regarded as the personification of the Holy Spirit. In other words, just as we refer to the Creator as Abba, Father, the First Person of the Trinity, and to the Logos as Christ, the Son and Second Person of the Trinity, so we also refer to the Holy Spirit as Sophia, Wisdom, the Mother, the Third Person of the Trinity. Relating to Sophia, the Holy Spirit, in feminine terms follows the traditional language in canonical books such as Proverbs and The Wisdom of Solomon. There are also statements in the New Testament referring to Wisdom as ‘her’. ‘Sophia’ is actually Greek for wisdom, and the word is feminine in gender and a popular name for females.

There are many directions we could go from here, but I want to focus on the significance I find in relating to God not only as masculine, but also as feminine. In my view, the Western world has developed unhealthy psychological and sociological imbalances by relating to God almost exclusively in masculine images and terms, and we need to redress those imbalances. But, honestly, it was not awareness of these cultural imbalances that led me to ponder the Divine Feminine, but rather awareness of something missing in my own experience. I realized that if part of my religious experience is relating to God in an anthropomorphic way, as seems so perfectly natural to do, then to do so without including the feminine would be something significantly less than the wholeness I feel moved to experience and express.

In relating to God through feminine personifications (such as Mother, Queen, Sister, Midwife, Bride), I must acknowledge that I actually engage in a little gender stereotyping. This approach might seem counterproductive in some ways, and it certainly has the potential to become divisive if we don’t first lay a thoughtful foundation, but I also think it is unavoidable.I also want to strongly affirm that there is only One Supreme Being — God transcending gender and also manifesting all gender possibilities. What I am talking about here is really nothing more than a variation of Trinitarian theology.

In continuing this meditation, it would seem helpful to have a sense of what we mean by the terms ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’. One problem that could arise here is bogging down in a detailed and eternal analysis of this polarity, with lots of quibbling over semantics and differences of perspective. But gender norms are not merely a product of our conscious thinking, personal experiences, and cultural influences, for there are unconscious and perhaps metaphysical factors involved. For example,  archetypes, in the Platonic and Jungian senses, are like psychological and metaphysical blueprints that exist prior to our conceptualizations of them, and perhaps the most fundamental manifestation of gender archetypes are the typical anatomical and neurochemical differences between males and females. The fact that such powerful factors contribute to gender norms tells us that, no matter how we consciously choose to relate to them, we are each bound to have certain basic, even instinctive, reactions to and attitudes about different genders.

So, keeping in mind that the intention is to move toward wholeness, counterbalancing the masculine forms imposed on our images and concepts of God, the objective is to consciously relate to God through feminine forms as well.  All the while, let’s proceed with the understanding that we are working with dualistic symbolism as a means of experiencing and expressing more of the diversity within the Unity of God. Therefore, rather than using this meditation to list a bunch of qualities associated with the masculine and the feminine, I would encourage everyone to proceed with a less analytical understanding of these polarities, simply allowing our own natural ‘gut-level’ tendencies to begin directing our thoughts and feelings. By observing our own tendencies, we will gain awareness of our personal and cultural biases, and I believe we get closer to wholeness in our understanding of not only ourselves but of our relationships with God. The symbolism, and thus the collective psychology, of mainstream Christianity is largely patriarchical, referring directly to two of the Three Persons of the Trinity in masculine terms – the Father and the Son. Even the Holy Spirit is sometimes addressed as ‘he’ in the New Testament. While most Christians are very accustomed to this, it is nonetheless an imbalanced way of thinking about and relating to God. Mainstream Catholic and Orthodox Christianity has made some room for connecting with Spirit in a feminine form through its veneration of Mary, the Mother of Jesus, as an immaculate soul, untainted by sin, who was united with the Holy Spirit. Having been impregnated by the Holy Spirit and having given birth to the Incarnation of the Son, she is intimately connected with the Trinity for all who revere her, whether in heresy or otherwise.

Hear and feel the wonder, adoration, and devotion in these excerpts from traditional Catholic prayers to Mary, the Rosa Mystica:

Maria, Rosa Mystica, fragrant rose of mysticism, wonderful flower of divine knowledge, of purity and blinding beauty, of brilliant, shining glory, of power and overwhelmingly blessing love: we kneel before you to pray, to look, to listen; to look at you and inhale your heavenly perfume until we have, above all, taken something of your immaculate, pure, and perfect being into our inner selves…. Maria Rosa Mystica – Mystical Rose, Immaculate Conception – Mother of Our Lord Jesus Christ – Mother of Grace – Mother of the Mystical Body, of the Church… You came down on earth to call upon us children of this earth to love each other, to unite, and live in peace.

There have also been Christian saints who have spoken directly of the Divine in feminine terms. In her discourse entitled “The Revelations of Divine Love”, the anchoress Julian of Norwich (1342-1416) actually speaks of each of the Three Persons of the Trinity in feminine and masculine terms, often in the same sentence. For example:

God All Power is our natural Father, and God All Wisdom is our natural Mother, with the Love and the Goodness of the Holy Spirit — who is all one God, one Lord.

As noted at the beginning of this meditation, the tradition of identifying the feminine aspect of God with Divine Wisdom is ancient. About 200-250 years before Julian, the great poet and composer St. Hildegard of Bingen wrote this praise to Sophia:

Sophia! You of the whirling wings, circling, encompassing energy of God: you quicken the world in your clasp. One wing soars in heaven, one wing sweeps the earth, and the third flies all around us. Praise to Sophia! Let all the earth praise her!

Orthodox and Gnostic Christianity also traditionally venerate Sophia (not to be confused with St. Sophia) as the Divine Wisdom praised in the book of Proverbs in a clearly feminine way:

Blessed is the man that findeth wisdom, and is rich in prudence. The purchasing thereof is better than the merchandise of silver, and her fruit than the chief and purest gold. She is more precious than all riches: and all the things that are desired, are not to be compared to her. Length of days is in her right hand, and in her left hand riches and glory. Her ways are beautiful ways, and all her paths are peaceable. She is a tree of life to them that lay hold on her, and he that shall retain her is blessed. Proverbs 3:13-18

Sophianic Christians often identify Sophia with the Shekinah of Judaism. Shekinah is the Presence of God said to have manifested as the pillar of flame above the Ark of the Covenant. She is the Spirit of God that moved upon the face of the waters in Genesis 1:2. Shekinah is also venerated in Judaism as the Sabbath Queen or Sabbath Bride, the special Presence of the Spirit of God that should be remembered, welcomed, and cherished on the Sabbath. With regard to Judaism, there are also schools of Kabbalah that teach God’s first gender expression is not masculine, but feminine. The view is that, prior to creation, all that ‘exists’ is God, and there are no dualities, no differences, no ‘parts’, just God in God’s Perfect Infinite and Eternal Unity. Then, in order for there to be something different, something that could conceive of itself as apart from God, God willed a space within Godself that was then empty of God. This movement was creation of the heaven and earth duality spoken of in Genesis 1:1, and the earth “was without form and void”. In effect, God first created a womb within Godself, and thereby God’s femininity was manifest. It is only after this, when God injects God’s essence, ‘Light’ (Gen. 1:3), into this womb that God’s masculinity is expressed. A Gnostic poem from the earliest centuries of Christianity (2nd or 3rd century), “Thunder Perfect Mind”, presents the Divine speaking of Itself in feminine terms:

For I am the first and the last. I am the honored one and the scorned one. I am the whore and the holy one. I am the wife and the virgin. I am the mother and the daughter. I am the members of my mother. I am the barren one and many are her sons. I am she whose wedding is great, and I have not taken a husband. I am the midwife and she who does not bear. I am the solace of my labor pains. I am the bride and the bridegroom, and it is my husband who begot me. I am the mother of my father and the sister of my husband and he is my offspring.

It should be clear that when Jews and Christians revere the Divine Feminine we are not worshipping a goddess over and above God, but simply adoring certain attributes of the One God that we can instinctively relate to as feminine in character. This practice is strange and difficult for some folks, especially mainstream Protestant Christians who are taught to think exclusively of God as masculine. I can relate! For a very long time, even long after beginning my mystical studies and practice, I just didn’t like all this stuff about the Divine Feminine. My attitude was that if my highest concept of God transcended gender, then that’s the way I should always think and talk about God. Yet, I’ve come to know that, at least for me, this view was too narrow, too incomplete and, ironically, too dualistic. In my current philosophy (philo-sophia = love of wisdom!), my relationship with the Holy Spirit through a feminine personification is quite powerful in all ways, not just intellectually, but emotionally, physically, and transcendentally. The latter simply cannot be spoken of, yet it stimulates the other kinds of experience and expression in my love affair with God. And those words “love affair” are quite literal. While contemplating the Divine Feminine at first brought me into the more common experience of God as Mother or Queen, quite unexpectedly She also called me into a sacred romance with Her as Lover and Bride. This romance has been expressed in mystical love poems since November of 2006, when I wrote Deep Within the Well of this Heart. I had written previous poems of adoration and devotion to God in masculine and gender-neutral terms, but this was the first time I actually addressed God as ‘lover’, and it was a genuine expression of an opening and liberation of my heart that occurred in contemplation of Her. Since then, many of my poems have been even more overtly addressed to Her and romantic in tone, such as in Queen of Spirits. My hope is that poems like these might help open other hearts to Her as mine has been.

There is so much more that could be said about how the Divine Feminine shows up throughout the history of Christianity, both exoterically and esoterically. This post is by no means an attempt to do the topic justice, but merely to provide an introduction to it that helps raise some possibilities during this season in which Mary has such a central role.

And now I will end this meditation with one of the oldest (c. 250 AD) and most widely used prayers in Orthodox Christianity, the Sub tuum Praesidium:

Under thy compassion we take refuge, Mother of God; do not disregard our prayers in the midst of tribulation, but deliver us from danger, O Only Pure, Only Blessed One. Amen.

Agape

Jun 252012
 

Seeking a God to Glorify, by Leroy T. Howe

Glorify coverHere is what I wrote for Amazon.com:

“This book is a wonderful read! Dr. Howe guides us through his own journey of spiritual formation, or faith development, courageously sharing the kinds of deep questions, thoughts, and feelings that many of us have been trained to avoid and deny at all costs. Supported by his exceptional scholarship, Dr. Howe’s thinking is as penetrating and clear as his compassion for humanity is warm and accepting. This soulful combination allows him to voice great sympathy for the profound struggles of religious life, especially with church doctrine, while also permitting him to be both funny and surgically precise in criticizing a great deal of popular dogma. Personally speaking, at every turn I felt as though I was reading the thoughts and feelings of a true kindred spirit. Dr. Howe knows the only god truly worthy of worship is the God who is Truth and Love. This being the highest possible concept of God, we best honor God through our own genuine commitment to the principles of truth and love, and so we must seriously question any doctrine, text, or authority that leads elsewhere.”

With regard to mysticism, Dr. Howe speaks clearly of a world-shifting spiritual experience  in which he felt connection with an infinitely caring “Knower.”  He also alludes to exploring some methods of spiritual practice, yet he never labels his faith as mystical.   Even so, many of us will find that his work belies a truly meditative depth of reflection, if not a genuinely contemplative openness to the still small voice of the Spirit in his own heart and mind.   One of the nice things about the lack of the mysticism label, combined with his personable writing style, is that it illustrates an approach to communing very deeply with God to which almost anyone can relate.

Dr. Howe also has his own excellent blog: Faith Challenges – Searching for a Credible Faith.

As a more intimate note to readers of my blog, I’m happy to point out that Dr. Howe dedicated this book to his good friend, Dr. John F. Miller, III.  John was my philosophy professor in college, my first meditation teacher, has remained a mentor all these years, and is one of my dearest friends.  Given that John’s career as a philosopher is most noteworthy for championing love above all else, it’s no surprise to me that Dr. Howe would dedicate this book to him.

May 092012
 

origin of satanThe Origin of Satan: How Christians Demonized Jews, Pagans, and Heretics, by Elaine Pagels

The title of this book seems somewhat misleading if all you see is, “The Origin of Satan.” The rest of the title is the real story.  Even so, by the end of the book I had a renewed appreciation for that “origin” business, since for me it became a constant reminder of how distorted and manipulated the idea of Satan has become from its Jewish roots.  It’s a good read, and I definitely recommend it for anyone ready to shake off some of the convenient dichotomies in our faith’s popular notions of Satan and evil.

The chapters of this book are:

  1. The Gospel of Mark and the Jewish War
  2. The Social History of Satan: From the Hebrew Bible to the Gospels
  3. Matthew’s Campaign Against the Pharisees: Deploying the Devil
  4. Luke and John Claim Israel’s Legacy: The Split Widens
  5. Satan’s Earthly Kingdom: Christians Against Pagans
  6. The Enemy Within: Dehumanizing the Heretics

Through these chapters, Pagels very thoroughly shows how a fringe idea (of Satan as a rebellious and fallen angel) evolved into a means for some members of the oppressed minority of early Christianity to define themselves in opposition to the evils they experienced and perceived in the world.  She then carefully illustrates how this new doctrine was expanded as part of official Christian theology, and how it was increasingly used as a way to stigmatize anyone or anything that would stand in the way of the emerging ecclesiastical hierarchy and its ambition to exercise worldly power.

As we should all know, this doctrine eventually became the justification for “good Christians” committing all the same heinous sins of oppression and persecution (and with even greater magnitude) against other minorities, both internal and external to the Church.  We became what we hated.  If Jesus spoke truly about knowing his followers by their fruits, then what has history shown us about the spirit of this doctrine?

One take-away for me is that it’s painfully obvious many of us are still playing this bloody game today.  And don’t think that I am merely taking a shot at militant evangelicals and fundamentalists; Christians calling themselves mystics, progressives, or liberals can do it too, and too often these various factions viciously hurl the accusations back and forth at each other.  Let’s also acknowledge the presence of this demonizing tactic in many contemporary Christians’ attitudes toward other religions, nations, political philosophies, ethnicities, sexual orientations, and so on.  I’m afraid that almost any wing of popular Christianity could, if too closely tied to political power, repeat this sad, gruesome old story of “lawfully” abusing those judged as under the influence of the Devil.  I’m also convinced that some of us are actively trying to do just that today, and not only in the USA.

The questions begged by this book include these:  What will it take for us to collectively let go of this temptation, this addiction, of demonizing others?  How do we do it without using the same dehumanizing tactics against our Christian siblings who hold onto this human-made doctrine as if it were a divine law?  How do we more fully express the wisdom and spirit of the Sermon on the Mount?

My guess is that it’s all got something to do with love and the mystical relationship with Christ and the Holy Spirit in one’s own heart.  What do you hear emerging from the stillness and silence in your heart?

Jesus Christ, our beloved brother and teacher, and Mary Sophia, our beloved mother and counselor, may your merciful, forgiving, selfless love heal us and inspire us to more freely serve as your vessels in this world. Amen.