I love opinionated non-PC people. This blog is to vent my opinions on life, the universe and everything. Which is 42 which in gematria is "My Heart" (LBY) according to Rabbi Abulafia. The Divine Heart is the centre of everything.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Church as Sophia: A Hebrew Catholic Insight


“Beauty would save the world... What kind of beauty would save the world?[1]... (While gazing at a portrait of a beautiful woman)  Ah, should there be kindness in her, everything would be saved!”[2] - these lines drawn from Dostoevsky’s novel “The Idiot” reflect a Russian iconism in literature.[3] The linking of beauty, woman, icon (portrait) and salvation (redemption) with kindness (goodness/ mercy/ compassion) resonates with the soul of the Russian and Slavic peoples which is embodied in their Trinitarian Sophiology, that manifests as Holy Mother Church as its inner face and Holy Mother Russia[4] as its outer face.  This essay will discuss the concept of the Church as a manifestation of the feminine Sophia (Wisdom) with special emphasis on the sophiological understandings of the Russian Orthodox writers and theologians with a post-modernist Levinasian ‘twist’[5].

            Elena Volkova in her discussion of “literature as icon” relates the memorial historical/ legendary narrative that reveals this iconic dimension of the Russian soul. This is the famous story of the conversion of the Slavic Rus to the Greek Orthodox form of Christianity. They are touched and converted by the beauty and the felt presence of God in the Divine Liturgy of the Eucharist.[6]  The Russian thinkers feel that this beauty and felt presence of the Divine is beyond human words so they try to express the inexpressible through art in the form of the painted religious icon or portrait.[7] Using the post –modernist ideas of the French Jewish philosopher Levinas in regards to immemorial past (or time) and ethical transcendence[8], allows us to see the immemorial concept of a literary icon- a picture painted with words rather than paint- in the texts of Genesis 1, the Song of Songs and the literary ‘icons’ describing the created feminine Wisdom (Sophia) especially in the books of Wisdom[9], Proverbs[10] and Baruch[11] in the Christian Old Testament.  This wider use of the term ‘icon’ was common in the early theologians of the Byzantine tradition.[12]

            Oleg Komkov speaks of the icon as a “living entity” and a “model”.[13] He states that the icon “is an entity characterising the way of human existence as expression and as comprehension of the substance, or essence, through expression”.[14] In the same way the Church has an iconic and expressive calling as the sophianic bride, sister and mother as “a living entity” and “model” in “immemorial time” (eternity). This reflects a mariological expression of the Church that is dear to both Russian Orthodoxy and Western Catholicism. In the West the Virgin Mary is called both Model of the Church[15] and Mother of the Church[16]. Vatican II and Pope Paul VI were influenced in their linking of Mariology and Ecclesiology by the prominent theologian and expert of the Eucharistic texts, Louis Bouyer, who was in turn influenced by the Sophiology of the Russian Orthodox Church through his friendship with the Russian Orthodox theologian, Sergei Bulgakov.[17] In turn Louis Bouyer’s Sophiology influenced Hans Urs Von Balthasar[18], who in turn influenced other Catholic theologians and writers such as Joseph Ratzinger[19]. Even Thomas Merton was influenced by Louis Bouyer’s interest in Russian Sophiology.[20] Other important Russian writers in the area of Sophiology were Nicholas Berdyaev, Boris Pasternak, Paul Evdokimov[21] and Pavel Florenski.[22]

            Bouyer believed that the Russian Sophiologists, beginning with Vladimir Soloviev, were merely reviving a Christian theme that was biblical and present throughout the Church’s tradition in both the East and West until Medieval times.[23] In the early Church the terms of Logos (Word) and Sophia (Wisdom) were used in regard to God the Son, but also some of the Fathers referred to God the Holy Spirit as the Sophia[24]. St Augustine referred to Jesus as the Divine Word as the uncreated Wisdom in his divinity. He also spoke of a second created Wisdom whom he referred to as “the Heavenly Jerusalem”, “House of God”, “City of God”, “Daughter Zion”, “Our Mother Zion” and “Our Mother above”. This language was also used to refer to the Church as the Bride of Christ. He seemed to refer to the passage in Genesis 1 where the “Let there be light” (yehi or/ fiat lux) creates the “and there was light”. He called the uncreated Wisdom the illuminating light and the created Wisdom the illuminated light.[25] This was also the teaching of the Jewish mystics, that the second light was the created feminine light associated with the concept of the dark light (zohar) as womb and mother.

            This dark light in Judaism was associated with the concept of Miriam’s well. This is the concept of twilight –two lights that are one- in the “immemorial” or primordial past (charos time) of Genesis 1. St Augustine in Liber Mediationum, 19 writes “However just as the illuminating light is differentiated from the illumining light, so great is the difference between You, the highest, creating Wisdom and that Wisdom which is created.” He also refers to her as a ‘Mind’.[26]  Rebbe Nachman of Breslov refers to the Sabbath Queen as one of the Heavenly four minds that dwelt in the Temple.[27] The humanity of the Son of God is linked especially to the created Wisdom as male and his Mother as the created Wisdom as female.

            Besides the biblical, Christian and Jewish input to Russian Sophiology, the pre-Christian Slavic religion also influenced the Russian soul towards a feminine interpretation of sophiology. The pre-Christian Slavs honoured the moist Earth Mother Goddess under the form of a cow with plentiful milk.[28] In the Sophiology of Vladimir Soloviev he speaks of Sophia as the creative power called the ‘Earth’.[29] He describes a cosmogonic process where Sophia moves from God’s thought through the interface or point of ‘beginning’ (reshit) into the vacated space of Creation and through a cosmogonic and historical process she begins to fill it with the ‘things’ of Creation.[30] She is also the Umanuta (Blueprint) of all Creation and she is the model for all created things. Thus Mother ‘Earth’ is also Sophia.[31] Vladimir Soloviev is here clearly drawing on the Jewish mystical tradition called Kabbalah.[32]

             Soloviev then discusses how the Divine Wisdom (Uncreated Sophia) becomes incarnate in the God-Human as the Messiah Jesus (uncreated Wisdom united to the Created Wisdom) through his female complementation, the Virgin Mary. He describes the Church as the universal extension of Jesus. Thus all three - Jesus in his humanity, Mary and the Church are the three-fold manifestations or icons of the created Sophia as the mystery of the Incarnation.[33]  Soloviev writes: “Contemplating in His eternal thought the Most Holy Virgin, Christ, and the Church, God gave His unconditional approval to all of creation, announcing that “it was very good” (Genesis 1:31)...”.[34] Thus both the Virgin Mary and the Church are sophianic created icons in which we perceive or encounter the Uncreated Sophia of the Godhead. The Church (in Eternity) is a wise Mother who is part of the Mystery (enigma) of the Red Heifer (linked to the death of Miriam)[35] who becomes the mystical Cow that gives us an abundance of milk (the Word of God/ Torah) to drink and an Ocean of mercy to bathe in.

             Soloviev compares the bringing forth by ‘Mother Earth’ of Adam from its dust, to the Virgin Mary through her dust–like humility bringing forth the second Adam. [36] The Church is only truly an icon of holiness and purity when she too embraces dust-like humility as a servant so that wandering and lost people can see the Divine Wisdom in her.  Sophia is described by Soloviev as the collective Soul of humanity that is made up of the many human individuals. She is the one and everything and the living source of all souls and thus the ‘Soul of the World’.[37] This is similar to the Jewish understanding of Kneset Yisrael (Community of Israel) as the Matronita or Shekhinah.[38] Raphael Patai refers to her as the “Hebrew Goddess”[39] in accord with the Zohar who also refers to her as Elah or Elleh (Goddess).[40] She is also associated as Kneset Yisrael as the Lady of Compassionate Mercy (Rachamim) which makes her beautiful (tiferet). The root of Rachamim (compassionate mercy) in Hebrew is Rachem (womb). Her beauty transcends selfishness via her beautiful and compassionate good deeds of mercy. This is what Morrison calls a Levinasian ‘ethical transcendence”.[41]         

            Jacob Frank, the leader of the thousands of  Frankists (Zoharists) who entered the Catholic Church in 1760, refers to her as the Goddess of the icon of Czestochowa.[42]  Soloviev also speaks of the icon of the Holy Sophia in the St. Sophia cathedral in Novgorod. He proclaims: “Who is it who sits there in royal dignity on the throne, if not Holy Wisdom, the true and pure ideal of humanity itself, the highest and all-inclusive “morphe” (Greek: form) as well as the living soul of nature and the cosmos, eternally bound God, who unites everything in the temporal world with her.”[43]

            Frank connected the holy icon of the Lady of Czestochowa with the Zohar’s teaching of the Celestial Mother as the mirror image of the 10 Attributes (Sefirot). She was the Lady Mother of Wisdom of the ‘Book of Proverbs’ to whom King Solomon was devoted. Frank said “What did Christ show? Just that, that all pray to an icon. There is in this world a ‘likeness’ to which all kings went. King Solomon gazed at that icon more than the others. That is why it is said, he was wiser than all the rest. If only one would sincerely pray to God at this entrance (the icon of Czestochowa) then from here God would answer him.”[44] The Goddess of Czestochowa revealed to him that when the Jewish people as a collective come and honour the Lady of Czestochowa then the Russian people would also honour her by entering a renewed Marian Catholic Church. Frank said about Czestochowa, “We are running after an icon…Czestochowa was called from ancient times the Matronita (Maiden/ Virgin). When we (the Jewish people) will come here so then will the Muscovites (Russians) enter her”.[45]

            In his writings Frank seems upset with the leaders of the Zoharist Jews who disobeyed him and did not bring all the Zoharists to honour the Lady of the icon of Czestochowa in a mass gathering. A great grace that God had in store was postponed to a later time. This grace was connected with the mystery of the Divine Will that is represented in the Jewish Temple by the three arks in one of the Ark of the covenant which represents the three heads (or skulls) of Divine Will. The “Zohar” associates the Ark with Matronita/ Shekhinah as the Sovereign of all the Earth.[46] Frank revealed, “In Czestochowa I beheld a vision of this ‘likeness’ (icon), I was in a synagogue where there were three arks which looked like altars. I paused before one of the altars and davened (prayed). After I had finished my davening according to Jewish custom I returned to my place and took off my tallis (large prayer shawl)…”.[47] Sergei Bulgakov associates the Divine Will with the Ousia (feminine past participle of einai ‘to be”) as the Sophia of the Godhead.[48] He states: “..we must insist on the full ontological reality of Ousia-Sophia. This is no mere self-determination of the personal God; Ousia, and therefore Sophia, exists for God and in God, as his subsistent divinity. Yet there is no fourth “Hypostasis”, we do not transform the Holy Trinity into a quaternity...”.[49] Bulgakov perceives that this Divine Sophia which is the essence (ousia) of God has an image or prototype[50] who is the created or creaturely Sophia that exists before Creation as the prototype of Creation. God created the world by his Divine Sophia (Wisdom) in the image of Sophia (the created icon of Wisdom).[51] This icon of Sophia is the Church in Eternity or the Levinasian “immemorial past” left as the ‘trace’[52] or ‘imprint’ of the world of God[53] called Ousia –Sophia.

            Bulgakov teaches that the Church is more than an institution. It is a ladder linking heaven and earth that channels Divine Life through the Eucharist (Divine Liturgy or Work). In the mysteries of the Incarnation and Pentecost, the world of humans is already designated for divinisation. Bulgakov states that this divinisation of humankind is the “supreme actualisation of the world” through the Church as Sophia.[54]  He states that as far as the Church is grounded in God it is Divine Sophia and in its earthly, historical existence it is created Sophia. The Divine shines forth through the created Sophia [55] when the Church proclaims the message of God in humility, truth and love.

            It is only then that the Church is truly Beauty that this beauty will save the world. This is the Church as the Universal Sacrament of Salvation which contains the ‘fullness’ of God (Ousia-Sophia).  Bulgakov is not just talking about the church within set boundaries but he speaks of the church of the Old Covenant, the Church of the New Covenant and the barren church of heathendom.[56] The Church fathers spoke of the pagan religions holding hidden seeds of the truth. Like, and in the power, of the Holy Spirit, Sophia blows and moves where she wills, seeking (desiring) those of sincerity of heart and love through the latticework,[57] as her lovers. The latticework can be perceived as a kind of icon in which we glimpse the Sophia.

            Sophia is also identified by some of the Fathers of the Church with the “beautiful foreign woman” of Deuteronomy 21:10-14.[58]  St Cyril of Jerusalem and the Fathers of the church refer to this ‘beautiful foreign woman’ as Captiva Gentilis.[59] From a Hebrew Catholic perspective this woman may represent the Church of the Gentiles (Bulgakov’s barren church of heathendom) as the created feminine Sophia.  Rabbi Isaac Luria (the great Ari) states that she is “from the root of Israel, abducted into the captivity of the shells”.[60] Sophia could thus be associated with the daughter of Hokhmah (Wisdom as the male Abba) and Binah (Understanding or feminine wisdom as Imma) who became lost among the Gentiles (Greeks) as Sophia or Philosophia  and who will one day be purified and restored to Israelite dignity in the coming of the eschatological kingdom. This would be a kind of mystical and philosophical marriage of Jerusalem and Athens as envisioned by Levinas[61]. Is this the reunion of Judah (the Jews) and Ephraim (the lost Israelites under the guise of the Christian Gentile Church of Europe)?[62]

            This Captiva Gentilis could be associated with the lost Princess of Rebbe Nachman’s tales of “The Lost Princess” and “The Master of Prayer”.[63]  Eli Talberg claims that the tale of “The Lost Princess” is based on a Russian folktale called “The Enchanted Princess”.[64] It is through the icons of the Madonna, that one perceives the heavenly Sophia in Eternity. This is Sophia as both Church and Mother personified by the Virgin Mary a Jewish Maiden ‘trapped’[65] or lost in the Church of the Gentiles. Louis Bouyer speaks of the restoration of the Jewish mother-form of the Church.[66]  Soloviev believed that it would be the mystically awakened Jews in the Russian Orthodox and Western Catholic churches that would bring about the reunion of the Eastern and Western churches.[67] Is the rise of interest in Sophiology in both churches a sign of the times?

            There are many other dimensions of the Church as Sophia that have not been discussed here and there are many different ways of perceiving the mysteries of the Church as the interface of the uncreated Divine Sophia with the Creaturely or created Sophia. Both Louis Bouyer[68] and Sergei Bulgakov[69] perceive Sophiology as rooted in the deeper and mystical reading of the Scriptures, which is part of the patrimony of wisdom (Sophia) entrusted to the Church. This patrimony of Sophia is found in both the Eastern and Western churches but preserved and proclaimed in a unique way by the Russian Orthodox Church. These Russian feminine and iconic aspects of Sophia calls us to a focus on the heart dimension and mystical nature of the ‘fullness of faith’ in a time when a male dominated totality[70] of over-intellectualisation and rationalism makes the ‘the womb of the waters of life’[71] sterile and withered and ‘the flowing milk of the Torah as mercy’ turns sour and bitter to drink in an era of mercilessness. The Dostoevskian and Russian question was asked “What kind of beauty would save the world?[72] It is the beauty of the Sophia that through a Trinitarian praxis[73] manifests kindness and goodness (ethical transcendence) to the other (alterity) as a manifestation of the eschatological kingdom.[74] The Church-Sophia as the Universal Sacrament of Salvation nourishes us with Eucharistic Life which is the ‘fullness’ of ‘Sophia –Ousia’. The Dostoevskian and Russian[75] answer has the definitive word: “Ah, should there be kindness in her, everything would be saved!”[76]

           


[1] Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Idiot, (USA: Hayes Barton Press, 1977), 362-3.
[2] Dostoevsky, The Idiot, 34.
[3] Elena Volkova, “Literature as Icon: Introduction”, Literature & Theology, Vol. 20 #1 (UK: Oxford University Press, 2006), 1-6.
[4] There are obvious parallels with Sophia as the Church and Sophia manifesting as Holy Mother Russia as the soul of the Russian people and the role of the Tsar (Czar) and Tsaritsa (Czarina) as the little or dear father and mother. However this essay will not discuss this topic.
[5] This is my own mystical ‘White Russian Cocktail’ in honour of my late Russian Orthodox step-grandmother Madame Nadine (Mirceva) Wulffius (1898-1992) who was a student of the Russian Imperial Ballet, a ballerina with the Latvian Theatre and a past President of the West Australian Ballet Company. It was she in our long and numerous conversations that inspired me with a love of all things Russian (except Communism at whose hands she and her family suffered).
[6] Volkova, “Literature as Icon: Introduction”, 1.
[7] Volkova, “Literature as Icon: Introduction”, 2.
[8] Glenn Morrison, A Theology of Alterity: Levinas, von Balthasar and Trinitarian Praxis (Pittsburg: Duquesne University Press, 2013), 3.
[9]  Especially Wisdom 7
[10] Especially Proverbs 8
[11] Especially Baruch 3
[12] Valerii Lepakhin, “Basic types of Correlation Between Text and Icon, between Verbal and Visual Icons” Literature & Theology, Vol. 20 #1 (UK: Oxford University Press, 2006), 20.
[13] Oleg Komkov, “The Vertical Form: Iconological Dimension in 20th Century Russian Religious Aesthetics and Literary Criticism”, Literature & Theology, Vol. 20 #1 (UK: Oxford University Press, 2006), 8.
[14] Komkov, “The Vertical Form: Iconological Dimension in 20th Century Russian Religious Aesthetics and Literary Criticism”, 9.
[15] Pope Paul VI, Gaudete In Domino 4 , “...She is the perfect model of the Church both on earth and in glory.”
[16] Pope Paul VI, Signum Magnum,
[17] Keith Lemna, “Louis Bouyer’s Sophiology: A Balthasarian Retreival”, The Heythrop Journal LII (USA: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2011, 628-630.
[18] Lemna, “Louis Bouyer’s Sophiology: A Balthasarian Retreival”, 628.
[19]Lemna, “Louis Bouyer’s Sophiology: A Balthasarian Retreival”, 628.
[20] Christopher Pramuk, “Wisdom, Our Sister: Thomas Merton’s Reception of Russian Sophiology” Spiritus 11 (USA: John Hopkins Press, 2011), 177.
[21] Pramuk, “Wisdom, Our Sister: Thomas Merton’s Reception of Russian Sophiology”, 177.
[22] Schipflinger, Sophia-Maria: A Holistic Vision of Creation, 260-268.
[23] Lemna, “Louis Bouyer’s Sophiology: A Balthasarian Retreival”, 631.
[24] St Theophilus of Antioch, St Irenaeus and St Clement of Alexandria.
[25] Thomas Schipflinger, Sophia-Maria: A Holistic Vision of Creation, (USA: Samuel Weiser Inc, 1998), 67-71.
[26] Schipflinger, Sophia-Maria: A Holistic Vision of Creation, 71-2.
[27] Likutey Moharan 67
[28] The Slavic peoples may have been descendants of the Lost Tribe of Ephraim (Joseph). Under King Jeroboam they embraced a cult focus on Bulls or Calves. This may have been a paganising of the concept of the Red Heifer. Joseph was represented by the Bull and his wife Asenath the fertile Cow who gives plentiful milk.
[29] Judith Deutsch Kornblatt, Divine Sophia: The Wisdom Writings of Vladimir Solovyov, (New York: Cornell University Press), 204.
[30] Kornblatt, Divine Sophia: The Wisdom Writings of Vladimir Solovyov, 204-7.
[31] Kornblatt, Divine Sophia: The Wisdom Writings of Vladimir Solovyov, 206.
[32] Schipflinger, Sophia-Maria: A Holistic Vision of Creation, 248.
[33] Kornblatt, Divine Sophia: The Wisdom Writings of Vladimir Solovyov, 208-9.
[34] Kornblatt, Divine Sophia: The Wisdom Writings of Vladimir Solovyov, 209.
[35] Numbers 20:1
[36] Kornblatt, Divine Sophia: The Wisdom Writings of Vladimir Solovyov, 209.
[37] Schipflinger, Sophia-Maria: A Holistic Vision of Creation, 249.
[38] Raphael Patai, The Hebrew Goddess, (Detroit: Wayne State University, 1990), 108.
[39] Patai, The Hebrew Goddess, 135-152.
[40] Zohar 1:2a. Daniel C Matt (translator), The Zohar: Pritzker Edition Vol.1 (California: Stanford University Press, 2004), 9.
[41] Morrison, A Theology of Alterity: Levinas, von Balthasar and Trinitarian Praxis, 3.
[42] Zbior Slow Panskich “Words of the Lord” 154-5. Harris Lenowitz, The Collection of the Words of the Lord (USA: University of Utah, 2004).
[43] Schipflinger, Sophia-Maria: A Holistic Vision of Creation, 250.
[44] Zbior Slow Panskich 91.
[45] Zbior Slow Panskich 95 & 106
[46] Zohar 1:2a
[47] Zbior Slow Panskich 7
[48] Sergei Bulgakov, Sophia: The Wisdom of God, (New York: Lindisfarne Press, 1993), 54-55.
[49] Bulgakov, Sophia: The Wisdom of God,55.
[50] Bulgakov, Sophia: The Wisdom of God,58-9
[51] Bulgakov, Sophia: The Wisdom of God, 71.
[52] Emmanuel Levinas, “The Trace of the Other”, Deconstruction in Context (1986), 355-357.
[53] Bulgakov, Sophia: The Wisdom of God, 70.
[54] Bulgakov, Sophia: The Wisdom of God, 134.
[55] Bulgakov, Sophia: The Wisdom of God, 134.
[56] Bulgakov, Sophia: The Wisdom of God, 135.
[57] Song of Songs 7
[58] Casten L Wilke, “The Soul is a Foreign Woman: Otherness and Psychological Allegory from the
 Zohar to Hasidism” The Bible and its World, Rabbinic Literature and Jewish Law, and Jewish Thought Volume 1 (Jerusalem: World Union of Jewish Studies, 2008), 129-130.
[59] Wilke, “The Soul is a Foreign Woman: Otherness and Psychological Allegory from the
 Zohar to Hasidism”, 132, 134.
[60] Wilke, “The Soul is a Foreign Woman: Otherness and Psychological Allegory from the
 Zohar to Hasidism”, 136.
[61] see Ephraim Meir, Levinas’s Jewish Thought: Between Jerusalem and Athens  (Jerusalem: The Hebrew University Magnes Press, 2008).
[62] Ezekiel 37: 15-28.
[63]  see Aryeh Kaplan, The Lost Princess and Other Kabbalistic Tales of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, (Jerusalem/New York: Breslov Research Institute, 2005).
[64] Eli Talberg, Tikun ha-Brit: View of the Torah on Sexual Development of a Man <http://algart.net/en/tikkun_ha_berit/tikun_ha_brit.html#relig_2>
[65] Trapped or Imprisoned by love as her son is imprisoned by love in all the Eucharistic hosts and tabernacles throughout the world.
[66] Louis Bouyer, The Church of God: Body of Christ and Temple of the Spirit (USA: Fransican Herald Press, 1982), 568.
[67] Judith Deutsch Kornblatt, Doubly Chosen: Jewish Identity, the Soviet Intelligentsia, and the Russian Orthodox Church (USA: University of Wisconsin Press,2004) 19-22.
[68] Lemna, “Louis Bouyer’s Sophiology: A Balthasarian Retreival”, 634.
[69] Aidan Nichols, “Wisdom from Above? The Sophiology of Father Sergius Bulgakov” New Blackfriars
Volume 85, Issue 1000, (November 2004), 605-6.
[70] see Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity, Netherlands: Kluwer Publishers, 1991.
[71] “Womb before the Dawn” Psalm 110
[72] Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Idiot, 362-3.
[73] Trinitarian praxis of Glenn Morrison (based on Levinas concepts) is ethical transcendence, eschatology and Eucharistic Life.
[74] Morrison, A Theology of Alterity: Levinas, von Balthasar and Trinitarian Praxis, 3.
[75] Elena Volkova, “The Salvation Story in Russian Literature”, Literature & Theology, Vol. 20 #1 (UK: Oxford University Press, 2006), 31-45.
[76] Dostoevsky, The Idiot, 34.


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Dostoevsky, Fyodor.  The Idiot, USA: Hayes Barton Press, 1977.
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Komkov, Oleg. “The Vertical Form: Iconological Dimension in 20th Century Russian Religious Aesthetics and Literary Criticism”, Literature & Theology, Vol. 20 #1 UK: Oxford University Press, 2006, 7-19.

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