We all have books that have changed us or the way we think about the world, about ourselves. My own list would include William Blake’s Jerusalem, Kathleen Raine’s Defending Ancient Springs, Rudolf Steiner’s lectures on beekeeping and agriculture, the work of Goethe, and the poetry of William Butler Yeats, Czeslaw Milosz, and Guillaume Apollinaire, among many others.
One book that significantly changed the way I think in recent years is Margaret Barker’s The Mother of the Lord, Volume I: The Lady in the Temple. In the book Barker argues that the religious reforms of King Josiah (7th c. BC—you can find him in the Bible in 2 Kings) were centered on expelling the worship of Hokmah (Wisdom/Sophia) from Hebrew temple worship. That is, she argues that, prior to Josiah, Wisdom as the consort of Yaweh was venerated (dare we say it?) as a goddess. To be fair, Barker does not make an absolutely airtight case in the book, but then it would be nearly impossible to do so. The winners write history, after all, and Josiah was obviously the winner. There is very little in the way of a paper (or parchment) trail. Nevertheless, she does some impressive scholarly detective work and makes some very intriguing assertions. One fascinating point is that the Jewish communities in North Africa of the period (in and around Alexandria) were in fact exiles/refugees fleeing Josiah’s purge of Hokmah in order that they might preserve her worship in relative freedom. Take into account that the Wisdom Books, particularly Wisdom and Sirach which celebrate Sophia’s participation with Yaweh in not only Creation but in Jewish history, were written by Alexandrian Jews and Barker’s thesis gets all the more tantalizing. I have not been able to shake Barker’s insights.
Reading Barker made me rethink my position on Valentianian Gnosticism. It now seems to me that the Gnostic mythos of Sophia and her exile at least echoes the exile of Sophia from official Hebrew religion. When read in this light, things seem very different from the almost knee-jerk rejection of Gnosticism one finds among mainstream theologians going back to the Fathers. Maybe we need to rethink this one.
With this in mind, I found myself needing to rethink Valentin Tomberg’s Our Mother prayer:
Our Mother, Thou who art in the darkness of the underworld,
May the holiness of Thy name shine anew in our remembering,
May the breath of Thy awakening kingdom warm the hearts of all who wander homeless,
May the resurrection of Thy will renew eternal faith even unto the depths of physical substance.
Receive this day the living memory of Thee from human hearts,
Who implore thee to forgive the sin of forgetting Thee,
And are ready to fight against temptation, which has led Thee to existence in darkness,
That through the Deed of the Son,
The immeasurable pain of the Father be stilled,
By the liberation of all beings from the tragedy of Thy withdrawal.
For Thine is the homeland and the boundless wisdom and the ail-merciful grace, for all and everything in the Circle of All. Amen.
Tomberg, who wrote another book, Meditations on the Tarot, that made me rethink the world and myself (not to mention rethink Catholicism), wrote this prayer around the time of his conversion to Catholicism (though it does not appear in any of his Catholic works). As I write in The Submerged Reality: Sophiology and the Turn to a Poetic Metaphysics, I attributed what one might call the “Gnostic overtones” of this prayer to the influence of Rudolf Steiner (Tomberg had been an Anthroposophist prior to his conversion). Steiner offers a similar verse:
Wisdom of God
Lucifer has slain her,
And on wings of cosmic forces
Carried her away into the depths of space.
Working in us
Shall tear her from Lucifer
And on grounds of spiritual knowledge
Call to new life in human souls
Wisdom of God.
Having read Barker’s intervention, now I’m not so sure these prayers are as tinged with Gnosticism as we have been trained to understand it.
My take is that Tomberg and Steiner intuited the condition of Sophia in the world, an intuition that jibes with some aspects of Gnosticism and with Margaret Barker’s scholarly excavation. They were certainly not the first. As I have argued throughout my work, many others have arrived at similar insights regarding Sophia’s seeming captivity in darkness, Jacob Boehme, John Pordage and Jane Lead, Vladimir Solovyov, Pavel Florensky, Sergius Bulgakov, and Thomas Merton among them.
As I’ve written before, it’s not really Sophia who strains in captivity. We do. But it surely seems as if she is imprisoned, when it’s really we who are. Such a reciprocity! And the only way to awaken her (us) is through contemplation, intentionality, presence. As Goethe wrote, the Eternal Feminine, indeed, draws us ever onward.
Michael's latest book is Transfiguration: Notes toward a Radical Catholic Reimagination of Everything. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org See also The Center for Sophiological Studies' available courses, including courses on Sophiology and Valentin Tomberg’s Meditations on the Tarot.