Jacob’s Ladder: Sophia and Creation
The following is an excerpt from my forthcoming book, Sophia in Exile.
Jacob named the site of his vision Beth-El, “the House of God,” and there is no reason to believe that every parcel of Creation is not a potential Bethel. Indeed, religious experiences tied to nature are too numerous to count, almost universal in their distribution. I would wager that they are among the most common of human experiences, though many if not most people lack a sufficient language for describing their experiences. Joan of Arc’s initial visionary experiences, for example, occurred at what was know as “The Ladies’ Tree” or “The Faeries’ Tree” in her village of Domremy. Some villagers even claimed to have seen faeries there, but Joan only claimed to have seen saints Catherine and Margaret and the Archangel Michael who “was not alone, but was accompanied by angels from heaven.” Even the (at the time) hardened Marxist economist Sergei Bulgakov was not impervious to the glory shining through the landscape one sunset while traveling through the Caucasus:
“I started to wonder what would happen if the cosmos were not a desert and its beauty not a mask of deception—if nature were not death, but life. If he existed, the merciful and loving Father, if nature was the vesture of his love and glory, and if the pious feelings of my childhood, when I used to live in his presence, when I loved him and trembled because I was weak, were true, then the tears and inspiration of my adolescence, the sweetness of my prayers, my innocence, and all those emotions which I had rejected and trodden down would be vindicated, and my present outlook with its emptiness and deadness would appear nothing more than blindness and lies, and what a transformation it would bring to me!”
But the Glory of the Lord doesn’t only shine through the beauties of nature. Bernadette Soubirous’s first vision of the Virgin Mary came in a small alcove near a garbage dump, and Jacob Boehme’s insight into the nature of God occurred through the reflection of light off a pewter dish. There is no place where grace cannot appear. Beth-El: You are here.
But you are also not here.
One thing that keeps us from the experience of the Real is our pathological drive to control everything from fertility, to illness, to our environments. We regulate fertility through artificial birth control, through abortion, through “waiting until we’ve established our careers.” Fertility, that is, terrifies us, so we treat it as a disease, even, in some cases, by comparing a growing fetus to a parasite. It terrifies us so much that fertility rates have been plummeting for decades though NGOs have nevertheless been advocating for a massive population decrease. If we learned anything through the Covid-19 panic, it has to be that people have fetishized antiseptic living into a demigod. When people used to get the flu, it was just one of those things. You took some over-the-counter medication or homeopathy and let the illness run its course. After Covid illness somehow became evidence of moral turpitude and selfishness. Another thing we learned is that it is “safer” to encounter others through virtual environments, like Zoom, than by interacting, by exchanging genetic information, in the face-to-face of a lived life. This is entirely neurotic.
These phenomena are merely symptomatic of a way of life (bios)completely divorced from Life (zoë). We live lives in which, as John Donne says, “‘Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone,” divorced as we are from the world of clouds, of plants, of animals, and from each other, from the cosmos, and because of these from from God. Indeed, the inverse is also true: we are distanced from the world of clouds, plants, and animals because we are distanced from God. The integral unity of life and purpose that we instinctively feel lacking is really a product of our disengagement from the calendar; and by this I mean from both the calendar of the seasons and the liturgical calendar, both of which reflected each other once upon a time. Enoch I is very clear about the repercussions of our disconnect from the cosmos and God:
“In those days the angel Uriel responded and said to me, ‘Behold, I have shown you everything, Enoch, and I have revealed everything to you [so that] you might see this sun, this moon, and those that guide the stars of heaven as well as those who interchange their activities and their seasons and rotate their processions.
“‘In respect to their days, the sinners and the winter are cut short. Their seeds shall lag behind in their lands and in their fertile fields, and in all their activities upon the earth. He will turn and appear in their time, and withhold rain, and the sky shall stand still at that time. Then the vegetable shall slacken and not grow in its season, and the fruit shall not be born in its season. The moon shall alter its order, and will not be seen according to its cycles.’” (80:1-5)
Surrounded by the scientific hubris that seeks to “improve” seed by genetic engineering and that attempts to dim the sun, the moon, and stars through the dispersal of calcium carbonate through the atmosphere (among many other foolish ideas)—things we have let happen through either ignorance or inertia—is it any wonder that our impact on the Creation grows more and more devastating? We operate not in a cooperative manner with nature, but stick to a paradigm characterized by suppression, dominance, and control, but above all by hubris. We shouldn’t ask why wildfires, droughts, and devastating hurricanes occur so often: we should ask why they don’t happen more.
The reason for this is that the world has a soul, the anima mundi. This is an idea found throughout history. Plato, in the Timaeus, describes it this way: “we may say that the world came into being—a living creature truly endowed with soul and intelligence by the providence of God.” And because the world is a living creature endowed with soul, all things within it participate in this life. As Plotinus writes, “the work of soul is something awake, both that within it and in the same way that which goes out to something else. Soul therefore makes alive all the other things which do not live of themselves, and makes them live the sort of life by which it lives itself.”  The Judeo-Christian tradition has a proper name for the bearer of this soul: “Wisdom, the fashioner of all things” (Wisdom 7:22).
To live in accord with Wisdom is to live in accord with both creation and God. The poetic metaphysics of this understanding can be found, among others, in the symbolism of the harmonia mundi and of the tree.
The harmonia mundi, literally “harmonies of the world” but often rendered in English as “the Music of the Spheres” has a rich history in the West, probably stemming from Pythagoras and is alluded to by Plato in the Timaeus. Plotinus provides a very beautiful description:
“The harmonious adjustment of the souls to the order of this All of ours witnesses to this: they are not cut off from it, but fit themselves in in their descents and make one harmony with its circuit, so that their fortunes and their lives and their choices are indicated by the figures made by the heavenly bodies and they sing, as it were, with one voice and are never out of tune. (And this is more properly the hidden meaning of the doctrine that the heavenly spheres move musically and melodically.”
Many Renaissance writers and thinkers touched on the idea, Robert Fludd and Johannes Kepler, for example, and Shakespeare in his play Pericles, Prince of Tyre. It is a very simple concept: to live in harmony with Creation and God is to be at one with All That Is. Conversely, to be out of harmony with Creation and God is to invite corruption, infertility, and desolation upon the world.
The image of the tree, as the Tree of Life, may be the symbol par excellence of Wisdom from antiquity. The Tree, of course, makes its first appearance in Genesis, but it was also a feature of First Temple Judaism as an icon of Wisdom before Her worship was banned under the reforms of Josiah and her devotees driven into exile. The Tree returns in Revelation at the restoration of All Things: “And he showed me a river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding from the throne of God and of the Lamb. In the midst of the street thereof, and on both sides of the river, was the tree of life, bearing twelve fruits, yielding its fruits every month, and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations” (22:1-2). Margaret Barker reads this restoration as the restoration of Wisdom, the Divine Sophia, to her proper place in Christian worship and understanding. For her, “The fate of the tree [is] the fate of Wisdom,” which is why she argues that the earliest Christian communities understood it in precisely this way: “When John saw the woman and the tree in the holy of holies [i.e., Revelation 22], he showed that the Christians were faithful to the older ways. Their temple was the ancient temple, and so the woman and her tree and everything they represented shaped their way of thinking. Wisdom/Miriam was the mother of the Messiah, and that is how the Christians told the story of the birth of Jesus.” 
This is the challenge presented to us at this point in history. We find ourselves confronted with a choice between the Real or a simulacra of the Real, what the kabbalah calls the qlipoth, the world of demonic powers.  Do we assist in the work of salvation by recognizing Sophia’s place in Creation, thereby calling her out of exile? Or do we follow the trajectory of death that has and will continue to wreak havoc on Creation and on our own souls as they descend into the technological and technocratic abyss of the qlipoth? Too often, Christians or any people of good will, leave the work of salvation to politicians or to an amorphous future event, the Coming of the Messiah. But our actions constitute a call, a summons. As Nikolai Berdyaev so stridently says, “My salvation is bound up with not only other men but also of animals, plants, minerals, of every blade of grass—all must be transfigured and brought into the Kingdom of God. And this depends upon my creative efforts.” Salvation, that is, is not a spectator sport.
Michael’s latest books are an edition of The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz and Transfiguration: Notes toward a Radical Catholic Reimagination of Everything. He can be reached at email@example.com See also The Center for Sophiological Studies' available courses. Also check out the latest volume of Jesus the Imagination: The Garden.
1. W. S. Scott, trans, and ed., The Trial of Joan of Arc, Being a Verbatim Report of the Proceedings from the Orleans Manuscript (Westport, CT: Associated Booksellers, 1956), 78.
2. Sergius Bulgakov, A Bulgakov Anthology: Sergius Bulgakov 1871 – 1944, trans. Natalie Duddington and James Pain, ed. James Pain and Nicolas Zernov (London: SPCK, 1976), 10–11.
6. Margaret Barker, Creation: A Biblical Vision for the Environment (London; T & T Clark, 20100), 266, 265.
7. Gershom Scholem, On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism, trans Ralph Manheim (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1965), 114.
8. Nicolas Berdyaev, The Destiny of Man, trans. Natalie Duddington (New York: Harper & Row, 1960), 294.