Jacob Boehme on the Virgin Mary as the Incarnation of Sophia
In observation of the Feast of the Assumption, I thought I'd share an excerpt from my book The Submerged Reality: Sophiology and the Turn to a Poetic Metaphysics on Jacob Boehme's thoughts on the Virgin Mary and Sophia.
Central to Boehme’s Christology—and the locus of its intersection with his Sophiology—is the role of the Virgin Mary.
First of all, Mary is for Boehme the vessel of the Incarnation, “a bright Morning-Star, above other Stars.”1 Boehme esteems her above all other creatures, much in resonance with the notion of hyperdulia, and not at all in harmony with much early modern Protestant theology. The reason she is to be esteemed is clear to Boehme:
For she bare the Saviour of all the world, without any earthly mixture; and she is also a virgin of chastity, highly blessed by her Son Jesus Christ, in the Divine Light and Clarity, more than the Heavens, like the Princely Thrones of the Angels. For out of her went forth the body, which attracts all Members to it; which are the children of God in Christ. And therefore her Glance [Luster or brightness] is above the Glance of Heaven; and the Glance of her soul is in the holy Trinity, where all other children of Adam (which are born [or begotten] in Christ) are also Members therein, in that One Christ Jesus.2
He knows such an idea will draw suspicion from the Lutheran authorities and he anticipates their concerns, asking, “Or dost thou think I make a God of her?”3 He does not believe she is: “No, the Invocation does not belong to her.” Nevertheless, Boehme believes Mary’s place in salvation was built into God’s plan, drawing on Genesis 3’s promise that the woman’s seed would trample the serpent’s head.4 Indeed, Boehme reads Mary’s divine role as antecedent not only to the Fall, but to the creation itself: “She was known in God in the highly precious Name JESU, before the foundation of the World was laid.”5 In Boehme, Mary’s hyperdulia is intimately related to her sophianic nature.
In Boehme, as the Word incarnated in Jesus, so in a similar (though not identical) fashion Sophia is united with Mary. As he writes in Three Principles of the Divine Essence, “the same virgin in the Wisdom of God, in the Word of God, hath in the bosom of the virgin Mary, given itself into her virgin-Matrix, and united itself, as a property, not to depart in Eternity.”6 He explains further:
Therefore we set it down here (according to our knowledge) that the pure chaste virgin (in which God was born [or generated]) is the chaste virgin [that is] in the presence of God: and it is an Eternal virgin; before ever Heaven and Earth was created, it was a virgin, and without blemish; and that pure chaste virgin of God put itself into Mary, in her Incarnation, and her new Man, was in the holy Element of God; and therefore she was blessed among all Women, and the Lord was with her, as the Angel said.7
This aspect of Boehme’s system, indeed, may have been the most radical for his time. Interestingly, the Incarnation of Christ is answered by Mary’s union with Sophia by a reciprocal movement. “We cannot say,” writes Boehme,
that the heavenly virgin of the Mercy of God (that is, that which entered into Mary out of the Counsel of God) is become Earthly; but we say that the soul of Mary hath comprehended the heavenly virgin: and that the heavenly virgin hath put the heavenly new pure Garment of the holy Element, out of the chaste virgin of God (that is, out of the [Barmhertzigkeit, Mercifulness] or Mercy of God) on to the soul of Mary, as a new Regenerated Man: and in that same she hath conceived the Saviour of all the world, and born him into this world.8
The double event—Christ’s incarnation tied to Sophia’s manifestation—bears with it important cosmological and salvific consequences upon which Boehme elaborates in ways very different from (though not antithetical to) more traditional Christian notions of atonement.
Cyril O’Regan has argued that “Mary is not in any sense the theotokos” in Boehme and that the theosopher emphasizes the humanness of Mary and Jesus...and…operates in terms of the Alexandrian axiom that what Christ does not assume, he cannot save.”9 I think this is an extreme representation of Boehme, colored by O’Regan’s project—framing Boehme in terms of Valentinian Gnosticism, a school of thought with which Boehme could not have been familiar. As B.J. Gibbons has observed, “If Boehme was a Gnostic, he was a Gnostic standing on his head.”10 Boehme is not writing as a professional theologian, but as a theosopher and as a mystic. Boehme writes in a symbolic and multivalent language. Reading him through a heresy-hunting lens does him (and, conversely, the reader) a great injustice. Indeed, the contrary motion Boehme illustrates through the dynamic of Christ’s descent to man and Mary’s ascent to Sophia needs to be read in its entirety, not one piece at a time.
Just as Mary’s union with Sophia provided Christ with a very physical means to make his way to man, for Boehme, that same union also makes it possible for each human person to find his or her way to Christ. In describing this process, he uses what is possibly his most intimate language, as we can see in a passage from The Way to Christ:
When Christ the corner-stone, stirreth himself in the extinguished Image of man, in his hearty conversion and repentance, then Virgin Sophia appeareth in the stirring of the Spirit of Christ, in the extinguished Image, in her virgins-attire before the soul: at which the soul is so amazed and astonished in its uncleanness, that all its sins immediately awake in it, and tremble and shake before her. For then the judgment passeth upon the sins of the soul, so that it even goeth back in its unworthiness, and is ashamed in the presence of its fair love, and entereth into itself, denying itself as utterly unworthy to receive such a jewel. This is understood by them who are of our Tribe, who have tasted this jewel, and to none else. But the noble Sophia draweth near in the essence of the soul, and kisseth it friendly, and tinctureth the dark fire of the soul with her Rays of love, and shineth through the soul with her Kiss of Love: then the soul skippeth in its body for great joy, in the strength of this Virgin-love, triumphing, and praying the great God, in the strength of the noble Sophia. 11
In most of Boehme’s writing, Sophia comes off as a divine principle, a quality (note Boehme’s usual employment of the neutral pronoun), while here Sophia is quite clearly a being, and quite clearly feminine. How does one interpret such a passage? Is this poetry? Theology? Do we take Sophia as a reality, that is, as a person, supernatural, perhaps, but still a person? When reading Boehme anytime, and perhaps especially when reading Boehme on Sophia, adhering too closely to any conceptualization will result in a shallow understanding. Boehme’s Sophia—as is the case with most sophiologies—needs to be read holographically.12 That is, we need to read Boehme’s Sophia on several different levels at once, holding that which shines through the text in an attitude of active waiting, allowing its many layers and textures to resonate through our own souls while suspending our critical faculties: faculties which so eagerly wish to lay claim to the victory of interpretive conquest.
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.
1 Jacob Boehme, Three Principles, 18.83.
2 Jacob Boehme, Three Principles, 18.93.
3 Jacob Boehme, Three Principles, 18.94.
4 Jacob Boehme, Three Principles, 17.97 – 106.
5 Jacob Boehme, The Fifth Book of the Author, in Three parts. The First; Of the Becoming Man or Incarnation of Jesus Christ the Sonne of God, That is, Concerning the Virgin Mary… [translated by John Sparrow] (London, 1659), 1.11.65. Hereafter as Incarnation of Jesus Christ.
6 Jacob Boehme, Three Principles, 18.37.
7 Jacob Boehme, Three Principles, 22.31.
8 Jacob Boehme, Three Principles, 22.37.
9 Cyril O’Regan, Gnostic Apocalypse, 46 – 47.
10 B.J. Gibbons, Gender in Mystical and Occult Thought, 62.
11 Jacob Boehme, The Way to Christ, 57 – 59.
12 I am interpreting “holographically” in terms of a kind of quantum mechanics of reading.