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Sophia, Mother of God

Sophia, Mother of God

Next month I’m leading a retreat on “Marian Spirituality for the 21st Century.” I wrote the abstract months ago, not really sure where it would take me, or what exactly I’d be presenting. I simply had an intuition that this was an important topic, and one I could personally stand to grow more deeply into. So what better way to make that happen than to force my hand with a deadline? (Ask my editor at Contemplative Journal, Kate, about me and deadlines.)

My growing interest in Mary (and by extension, Sophia—the biblical Wisdom—and the Divine Feminine in general) was started in part because my wife has a strong devotion to Mary. But one morning I knew it was more than a passing intellectual curiosity when, during prayer, I found myself weeping as I had an overwhelming experience of Her. The Mother. She Who Is. And I felt unmistakably in my bones that this is Her time: that She is coming forward in the spiritual landscape, and that we must work to honor and cultivate Her presence.

Now before I go any further, let me be clear—I don’t think Divine Reality can ultimately be captured in any categories, let alone sex or gender. And I find the binary gendering of certain human qualities as “masculine” or “feminine” deeply problematic. (All of these qualities are universally human, existing in unique configurations in each person; they aren’t inherently “male” or “female” as our gendered language implies.) And I don’t think parental metaphors for Divinity (Mother/Father) are all that great. And yet, here She is in my life. I want to tell you what I’m making of it.

In my first column for Contemplative Journal, I discussed the idea that we’re entering a “Second Axial Age.” The underlying premise is that human spiritual and cultural evolution—really, the evolution of consciousness—happens along a spiral trajectory. Pre-Axial spirituality (roughly, before 200 BCE) was rooted deeply in the Earth and a sense of tribal or collective identity. These traditions tended to honor the Sacred Feminine as the Goddess or Mother Earth, and matriarchy wasn’t unheard of. And so, historically speaking, we can say that we began in Her, and that we once knew a primitive unity with Her.

With the Axial shift that produced the headwaters of our existing religions, human spirituality took a different turn and set us on a path that began developing the rational faculties of our minds. A focus on the individual emerged, collective identity was submerged, and we broke our deep ties with the Earth. As we climbed our way up the arm of the First Axial spiral, we moved into differentiation (analyzing, quantifying, compartmentalizing)—and we gained amazing skills of understanding and manipulation in the process.

Most recently, we’ve developed great feats of science and technology that are interconnecting our world at a global level—just as we begin to turn the curve into the next rung of the spiral. Now, as we enter a Second Axial age, we’re picking up the pre-Axial (the unitive, the collective, the earthy) at a higher level. And with it, we’re experiencing a return of the Mother. But now the unity is no longer primitive and undifferentiated; now it’s conscious and awake—no longer the One or the Many, but the One awakening as the Many. All this time She has waited silently, holding us—and now it’s time to recognize Her again.

What (or Who) is this Mother? Who exactly is this She I keep referring to? First, a word about who She is not. In the context of spirituality, we often set up a binary in which the Transcendent (“Sky God”) represents the “masculine” and the Immanent (“Mother Earth”) represents the “feminine.” This polar arrangement doesn’t capture the relationship I want to describe here. She can’t be contained by concepts like Immanent or Transcendent. She holds both, and is neither. A more helpful approach might be this: imagining the “masculine” not in terms of transcendence, but instead as the differentiating principle. In contrast, the “feminine” is the unitive. (While I will continue using the traditional metaphysical terms “masculine” and “feminine” throughout this article, because of the cultural gender baggage and unhealthy polarities we associate with them—strong/weak, aggressive/passive—it may be helpful to simply hear “unitive” and “differentiating” to better catch my point.)

To get a feeling tone for this, let’s use a biological metaphor: an actual mother (preferably a mammal!). The child of the mother literally grows within her, and later feeds at her breast. As a metaphor for Divine Reality, it implies organic connection in a way that “father” simply doesn’t. (Importantly, I’m not knocking dads here or saying they can’t be intimately connected to their children—it’s simply a different image, and one that is less physically linked.) Of course, “mother” and “matrix” come from the same root, mater. And so, using this image, She can be understood as the unitive matrix in which everything grows and holds together. She is the oneness that holds all things.

It is interesting, in this regard, to note that all human fetuses begin as female. We all have an X chromosome (women, two of them), but only men carry a Y chromosome (there are also occasional genetic arrangements that bring an extra X or Y into play). All fetuses begin developing along an X trajectory—as female—and it is only with the activation of the Y chromosome at around 8 weeks that a fetus begins to develop male traits (hence, male nipples—and a whole plethora of other subtle features that connect men back to those first few weeks of life). So, in some sense, the “ground” sex or identity for human beings is female, and “male” is a divergence or differentiation that develops out of the female.

We might find in this an analogy for seeing the “feminine” as the unitive ground of reality rather than half of a pole within it. It’s a different picture from our usual “equal and opposite” binary ordering of masculine and feminine. In this picture, the feminine is the unitive ground out of which the masculine differentiating principle arises, and not its opposite pole. Where this links with Christian theology is where the picture starts to get interesting. There’s a long thread of Divine Feminine teaching in the Jewish tradition that centers on the figure of “Wisdom” (Chochma in Hebrew, Sophia in Greek). I won’t spend a great deal of time exploring this here, but to give you a taste of this teaching, here are a few scriptural citations, translated by Rabbi Rami Shapiro:

“What is Wisdom? […] She is the mobility of movement; She is the transparent nothing that pervades all things. She is the breath of God, a clear emanation of Divine Glory. […] Although She is one, she does all things. Without leaving Herself, she renews all things.” –Wisdom of Solomon 7:22, 24, 27

“Established before beginnings, She transcends time. She is God’s word, a fountain of understanding; Her ways are timeless, linking each to all, and all to One.” –Wisdom of Jesus ben Sirach 1:4-5

And speaking for herself: “I am the Mother of true love, wonder, knowledge, and holy hope. Beyond time, I am yet given to time, a gift to all my children…” –Wisdom of Jesus ben Sirach 24:18
Wisdom was not unknown to the early Christians, and the early fathers of the Church variously understood Her as being synonymous with the Word (Logos) of God or with the Holy Spirit. Contemporary feminist theologians have found hope in this ancient linking for balancing an otherwise masculine Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. By understanding the Holy Spirit as Sophia, or by seeing Jesus as Her incarnation, you bump one- to two-thirds of the arrangement towards the feminine! Of course, the whole thing begins to look a little metaphysically off-kilter then, as three isn’t a number that lends itself well to gender balance.

All along, however, a much more promising trajectory of thought was working subtly under the surface of Russian Orthodox spirituality, and finally flowered in the late 19th and early 20th centuries through a line of thinkers known as the Russian Sophiologists: Vladimir Soloviev, Pavel Florenski, and Sergei Bulgakov. All three men had powerful experiences of “Her,” and interpreted Her as Sophia, the Lady Wisdom of the Scriptures. Describing Sophia, Soloviev wrote:

As the living centre or Soul of all creatures […] She includes the manifoldness of living souls; She is all of humanity together in one, or the Soul of the World. She is ideal humanity, containing all individual living creatures or souls and uniting them through Herself […]. Her task is to mediate and unify the manifoldness of living creatures, who constitute the actual content of Her life and the absolute unity of God.
She contains all living creatures, She is the unity that binds them, and Her work in the world is to unify outwardly that which is already one in essence—in Her.

But again, who is She? The unique turn taken by Russian Orthodoxy was in linking Sophia not with Jesus or the Holy Spirit (as the Byzantine Church had), but instead to the Virgin Mary. Mary was seen as the human face of Sophia, the incarnation of Holy Wisdom. Mary as Her human face served as the matrix in which Christ grew; Sophia as universal matrix serves as the Mother in which all creation grows and moves towards the fullness of Christ.

To connect Sophia to the doctrine of the Trinity, the Sophiologists made their boldest move. She was not one of the three Persons: Father, Son, or Holy Spirit. Nor was She a Fourth Person, causing the Trinity to become a Quaternity. Rather, Sophia was the Ousia, the Essence, Being, or Unity of the Trinity: “Three Persons (hypostases), one Being (ousia).” Even Thomas Merton, working in the Western Benedictine tradition, picked up the same intuition, writing: “Perhaps in a certain very primitive aspect Sophia is the unknown, the dark, the nameless Ousia. Perhaps she is even the Divine Nature, One in Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.”

Bulgakov stated the outcome of this theological trajectory plainly: “In short, by embracing three in one the Holy Trinity is Sophia. It is the Ousia or Sophia… the Trinity has a single Ousia and this is Sophia.” Not a single Person of the Trinity, She is the Trinity. The Church, in intuiting her variously as the Logos or Holy Spirit, was simply touching the reality that She is the single Essence uniting and shining through each Person.

Such an understanding—Sophia as Divine Essence, and Mary as her human face—brings a new depth of meaning to Mary’s traditional title “Mother of God.” If the historical Mary is the Mother of God in the sense that she bore Christ, Sophia is the Mother of God in that She is the Ground of Being from which the entire Trinity eternally arises and in which it dances. She is the Godhead: the Essence and Mother of God. If She is the “feminine” unity, the Trinity then becomes the “masculine” differentiating force that spirals out from the Marian Essence, initiating the unfolding drama of cosmic history.

In the beginning, we knew Her dimly as our own primal oneness. Now She comes forward as our awakened essence, not erasing, but unifying the manifoldness of creation in a single, christified reality. Not only is She the hidden Essence, but also the Mother who guides and unifies the entire process. She is present not just as ground or transcendence, but as all-encompassing matrix, fully present in and through each and every point of the unfolding.

In his book The Last Barrier, Reshad Field recounts the words of his Muslim Sufi teacher: “There are many paths to God, but the way of Mary is the sweetest and most gentle. If you can melt into Mary, the matrix, the blueprint of life, the Divine Mother, you will be formed and shaped in Christ and Christ in you…” Christ comes through Mary. For Christ to come through each of us, we must become Mary. For Christ to come in fullness, we must collectively become Mary. Only then will creation be awakened fully to its Essence, Sophia, the Mother of God; only then will Christ be fully and finally born.

Early 18th-century Roman Catholic saint Louis de Montfort believed that the Church was entering an “Age of Mary,” and that for the fullness of Christ to come into our world, “Mary must shine forth more than ever in mercy, power and grace…” Indeed, whether we call Her Mary, Tara, Kuan Yin, Kali, or Sophia, the time of the Mother is upon us. And so, in the words of de Montfort, I pray: “For your kingdom to come, O Lord, may the kingdom of Mary come.” Amen.

Matthew Wright
Matthew Wright

The Rev. Matthew Wright is an Episcopal priest working to renew the Christian Wisdom tradition within a wider interspiritual framework. Alongside his practice of Christianity, he draws deeply from the sacred worlds of Islamic Sufism and Vedanta. Matthew serves as priest-in-charge at St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church in Woodstock, NY and lives with his wife, Yanick, alongside the brothers of Holy Cross Monastery.