Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Merton's Sophia Wisdom and Natural Contemplation

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1874
I am researching the idea of Sophia Wisdom in the writings of Thomas Merton. In his later years,
Merton became quite occupied with Wisdom as an aspect of Christ. Drawing on scripture, such as the Song of Songs, and his extensive study of the Holy Spirit in Eastern Orthodox mysticism, Merton came to find a deep, inherent aspect of humanity that is "eros," a notion far beyond the superficial idea of genital erotic love, and applicable to loving relationship, spiritually expressed in unity with humanity and nature. This is Sophia Wisdom, to know this passion for Divine unity with all of life as "Christ-graced" transformation.

Merton says, "If we believe in the Incarnation of the Son of God, there is no one on earth in whom we are not prepared to see, in mystery, the presence of Christ." (New Seeds of Contemplation) This expression is enlightened mind, the very essence of the concept of "the mind of Christ." (Paul - 1 Cor 2:16)

In his exquisite book called "Sophia, The Hidden Christ of Thomas Merton," Christopher Pramuk shares many great quotes by Merton from various sources, but one in particular is a collection of notes from a class Merton taught on Mysticism, Introduction to Christian Mysticism, at Gethsemane in the 1960s. Here, Merton has compiled a wonderful collection of writings from the church fathers, Roman and Orthodox mystics through the ages on mystical theology, the cosmos, the oikonomia (cosmic household - BTW, the origin of the name of this Blog, Ecumenicus), the Wisdom inherent in humans - "multiformis sapientia" - that which apprehends the wisdom and glory of God:

1. in the spirit of Scripture and not in the letter;
2. in the logoi of created things, not in their materiality;
3. in our own inmost spirit and true self, rather than in our ego;
4. in the inner meaning of history and not in its external (history of salvation, victory of Christ);
5. in the inner sense of the divine judgments and mercies (not in superstitious and pseudo-apocalyptic interpretation of events). (New Seeds of Contemplation, 122 via Sophia by Christopher Pramuk, 142)

I'd like to share with you a slice from Introduction to Christian Mysticism that speaks to the idea of natural contemplation (theoria physike), a practice first mentioned by Evagrius Ponticus (345-399 AD), Christian monk and ascetic, meaning understanding natural order of being from both spiritual and material aspects. Merton holds the ability to unite these paradoxical aspects of the human perception of reality as the essence of Sophia Wisdom. It is in this light that humans realize both their spiritual identity in Divine Being with God and their enfleshed, material identity, each one integrally a part of Divine reality.

"Hence theoria physike (natural contemplation) is a most important part of man’s cooperation in the spiritualization and restoration of the cosmos. It is by theoria that man helps Christ to redeem the logoi of things and restore them in Himself.

This theoria is inseparable from love and from a truly spiritual conduct of life. Man not only must see the inner meaning of things but he must regulate his entire life and his use of time and of created beings according to the mysterious norms hidden in things by the Creator, or rather uttered by the Creator Himself in the bosom of His creation.

The vision of theoria physike is essentially sophianic (Sophia wisdom). Man by theoria is able to unite the hidden wisdom of God in things with the hidden light of wisdom in himself. The meeting and marriage of these two brings about a resplendent clarity within man himself, and this clarity is the presence of Divine Wisdom fully recognized and active in him. Thus man becomes a mirror of the divine glory, and is resplendent with divine truth not only in his mind but in his life. He is filled with the light of wisdom which shines forth in him, and thus God is glorified in him.

At the same time he exercises a spiritualizing influence in the world by the work of his hands which is in accord with the creative wisdom of God in things and in history. Hence we can see the great importance of a sophianic, contemplative orientation of man’s life." (Thomas Merton, An Introduction to Christian Mysticism)

This is a mystical way of perceiving, to hold the duality of spirit (what is unseen) and flesh (what is seen) together in the coincidence of opposites, Heraclitus (535–475 BC), the Coincidentia oppositorum (Nicholas of CusaDe Docta Ignorantia,1440). In Hinduism this is advaita vedanta, nondualism. In a psychological sense, this is to use both the sensing - thinking mind and the intuiting - experiencing "body" together to fully assess ones reality. This is more than knowledge. This is Wisdom. And it is (attained through) "contemplative orientation."

Mertons book, Introduction to Christian Mysticism is available free at this link.

May you find within you, that silent place where Sophia whispers love and unity, a song of songs from the Beloved to the Beloved. Peace. _/\_Peggy @ Ecumenicus

I am blessed to be hosting a retreat with Madonna Sophia Compton on The Divine Feminine: Sophia Wisdom, Origins and Expressions on March 19th. More info here: Lavender House Events


  1. Is there anything in Merton on the wisdom of the Earth or on ecological wisdom (or the wisdom manifest in creation)? Just curious as this is my main focus of research and writing right now.

  2. Hi Mark! Sorry about the delay getting back to you! I googled Merton and ecology and found quite a bit of good stuff. The book, The Environmental Vision of Thomas Merton by Monica Weis will be helpful.

    Here are some of the links I found and thought infomative:





    Peace, Peggy

  3. Patrick O'Connell's, Thomas Merton, Selected Essays includes Mertons article, The Wild Places, albeit the [apparently] abbreviated version.