Searching for Sophia 29 July, 2009

Orthodox icons of Sancta Sophia (Holy Wisdom) depict her as an enthroned feminine Angel, but who is she, really, and where is she to be found? The Passages of the Old Testament in the Book of Proverbs and the Wisdom of Solomon which refer to Wisdom are usually taken by the Church Fathers as applying to the Second Person of the Trinity, the uncreated Logos who became Man as Jesus Christ. Yet the iconographic and mystical tradition suggests there is more to be said.

In the late nineteenth century, the Russian theologian Vladimir Solovyov attempted to say it – inspired by three visions of Sophia, one in Moscow, one in the British Museum and one in Egypt. Sophia, he thought, was the ‘finished unity of the all in God’, the cause and goal of creation, the incarnation of Beauty.  As such, she is feminine, because all of creation is feminine in relation to God.  Though created, she was with God in the beginning (Prov. 8:22), and at the end of the world she will be revealed as the Bride descending from heaven (Rev. 21:2).

The visionary archetype of Sophia has always appealed to gnostics, but that is not to say she cannot have a place also in orthodox – and even orthodox Catholic – theology. In medieval times, Sapientia or Sophia was portrayed as the patron and mother of the seven Liberal Arts, emblematic of the cosmic harmony and purpose which it was the essence of education to convey. Today, a sense of meaning and beauty must be regained in the face of widespread cynicism, reductionism and materialism.

Where do we go for wisdom? There is a wonderful homily by Bishop Anthony Fisher by this title on the New Springtime web-site. New Springtime is the faith and culture journal of the Australian Catholic Students’ Association.

The Maryvale Institute in Birmingham is a place where many have found an education in wisdom, in the midst of a busy life – a rare oasis of intelligent orthodoxy. The site of the first English seminary after the Reformation, and later a place of retreat for John Henry Newman and his followers, Maryvale is now a college for theology and catechesis. It offers a range of BAs and other degrees and shorter courses using a sophisticated “collaborative learning” or “distance learning” model, based on course books, occasional residential weekends and summer schools. This means that you can take a degree, under the supervision of excellent tutors, while still remaining in full employment. Take a look at what they have to offer! In the economic downturn, this may be exactly what you need.

Sophia Institute Press seeks to publish works of holy wisdom that are faithful to the tradition of the Church. Its logo, based on an image of the Greek Athena, recalls the complementarity of the Greek philosophical and Catholic theological traditions, for in the natural wisdom of the ancients lies a promise and a foreshadowing of that which came into the world through the Blessed Virgin Mary in the person of her Son.

CLARIFICATION —  Sophia Institute Press recently sent out an advertisement for the post of Editor in Chief. This has confused some of our readers, who may recall that a few months ago announcements were made that Stratford Caldecott had been appointed Editor at Sophia. (The post of Editor in Chief did not exist at that time.) In fact there have been major changes on the Board of Sophia, and the association with Thomas More College and Second Spring which led to my original appointment has been severed, at least for the time being. However, these changes are likely to strengthen Sophia rather than weaken it. In planning for new investment in the future of the company, the Board of Sophia have recognized that the function of editorial manager at Sophia, located in New Hampshire, cannot be performed long-distance from Oxford, which is where I am based – hence the new job opening.  For my part, I remain an Editor for Sophia and will be happy to work closely with the new Editor-in-Chief whenever he or she is appointed. Meanwhile the journal Second Spring has resumed publication at Thomas More College and should be with you shortly.– Stratford