The figure of Wisdom ‘at play’ in creation is given to us in Proverbs 8.
‘Does not wisdom call … Lord created me at the beginning of his work the first of his acts of long ago… Then I was beside him, like a master worker; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race.’
Thomas Merton describes the figure of Wisdom most memorably in his work ‘Hagia Sophia’. ‘Sophia, the feminine child, is playing in the world, obvious and unseen, playing at all times before the Creator… Sophia is Gift is Spirit… She is God-given and God Himself as Gift.’ Here there is such a clear contrast with the ‘feminine’ and playful association with wisdom rather than the serious pragmatic, rational and more ‘masculine’ approach to life where everything has a point and purpose. I like to think rather than a gender divide this is about the child mind and about encouraging spontaneity and joy and freedom. It’s really the balance that we need between the two but at the moment the pragmatic and the rational seem to suggest that the other perspective has no relevance. This of course is the destruction of creation where knowledge has led to great power and creation is merely a means to an end. The effect of course is that we then become disorientated and spiritually restricted forced into a cul-de-sac.
Analysis can help here because we are reminded in therapeutic work that the child is ever present and that there needs to be a balance of the adult and the child part of ourselves within the psyche. We might think that we grow up and leave childhood behind but it becomes painfully clear that trauma can always return and that new sadnesses can potentially overwhelm and disturb us and remind us of past losses and fears. So rather than feel that we’ve sorted out the child part of ourselves once and for all it is salutary to remember that that can never be the case and that the child part of ourselves – the best part – can remind us of feelings of curiosity spontaneity and creativity.
Always there are the outer and the inner, the conscious and the unconscious. One of the great contributions of Carl Jung was his willingness to see both the darkest aspects of human nature and the possibility of redemption through self-knowledge so there are always these main currents and coexisting streams both of which can keep us in balance. Proper relationship of the two aspects – masculine and feminine – visible and invisible – adult and child is not that one triumphs over the other nor that one discredits the other but rather is a commitment to the process of bringing about an understanding between the two worlds. Because of course underneath it all and if only we could see it with a different perspective we would know there is only the one world and that we are all part of the single system. June Singer a Jungian analyst writes ‘In the Eye of Wisdom we are all equals, participants in one coherent cosmic system… All we need to set the world aright is here. We only have to see it.’
Wisdom is very much about being able to see the sacred in the very ordinary and how what appears to be completely separate or disparate is in fact in unity. There is a sense in which as we meditate and use contemplative prayer it is easier to be and feel connected – not least with all the others who were sitting in silence throughout the world, whatever their faith or tradition. For surely in silence we understand that we are all one it’s only as we begin to talk and discuss and express our views and try to dominate one another with them that things begin to fall apart and become stressed.
For those who are based in Christian faith the Christian contemplative tradition serves as a point of contact and dialogue with the great traditions of the East, and that in itself is unifying. If we stop analysing and quantifying and explaining then there is a freedom to open up to other life forces and forms in other words sacramental view of creation. This connection with Wisdom is sometimes called sapiential or sophianic consciousness – Sophia – and I think it does offer or start to offer a deeper and wider consciousness. Clearly contemplative wisdom is opposite to acquiring knowledge, facts, qualifications and skills it is rather an opening up of awareness. It’s a bit like discovering the unconscious and that moment of breakthrough of realising the transference and how much projection takes place. Thomas Merton thought that this wisdom represented the deepest and most authentic fruit of religion itself and in terms of Christianity he saw it as living contact with the infinite source of all Being. He thought it present in all authentic spiritual paths where there is awakening in the very ground of one’s being. Whilst there are clear differences in the experience and the way experiences are talked about between Christians and non-Christians there is the experience that creation itself as a manifestation of divine Wisdom. For many who explore this very existence, order, life, and beauty of the universe and of every creature within it, reflects the image of divine Wisdom. Thomas Merton wrote ‘…the forms and individual characters of living and growing things, of inanimate beings, of animals and flowers and all nature, constitute their holiness in the sight of God.’ He gives us this wonderful phrase – ‘their inscape is their sanctity.’ He sees it is the imprint of God’s Wisdom and God’s reality in them. This of course makes it all the more painful as we watch the environment and many of the wonderful creatures who inhabit our world being destroyed – crucified for our greed and thoughtlessness.
Before I became confirmed and a member of the Church of England and whilst I was still a Quaker I also took a great interest in Buddhism and attended a large number of different teachings and groups. This included the Order of the Western Buddhists and a local Tibetan Buddhist group, later I became interested in Zen Buddhism and attended days run by Catholic priests who were also Zen roshis. I was definitely searching for more than I was finding at the Society of Friends and so when I joined the Tibetan Buddhist Sangha I took refuge.
‘Taking refuge’ is a way of making a commitment; for me it was when I thought that Buddhism would be the path and that I would want to base my life on Buddhist principles. The general idea is that you make a commitment to Buddhism partly to grow and develop your own spiritual life but also so that through that growth and development you can help others more. So I was agreeing to study and take on the principles of Buddhism.
The greatest sense of commitment is to learn to tame your mind, to develop loving-kindness and compassion and so to help other people when people need your help. When you have developed your mind properly then you will be willing to give help when people need it, and not just when you feel in the right mood. That commitment is the main vow; and taking refuge means that you agree to train your mid in this way.
But I never really felt that I belonged or really wanted to belong to this spiritual path. There seemed much to learn from Buddhism – not least how to meditate but I was also encouraged when I read Thomas Merton about Christian contemplation and how this too could be something that lay people practised.
However the phrase ‘taking refuge’ can apply to the church and also to analysis …I think really it means that we can’t undertake spiritual and psychological searching alone. We need a shelter…a sanctuary. It means making a connection rather than feeling alone or alienated. The connection is with Wisdom… which is not intellectual knowledge or ‘knowing about’. The thing is that Wisdom is a way of knowing which opens us to being found so that we are not lost in the cosmos nor in society but found in them. This connection with Wisdom means that we respond to the world not as a detached objective observer but rather with an intuitive participatory awareness of what Thomas Merton called the hidden wholeness of all reality. It becomes a knowing within that we are loved and part of everything.
This is the second part of the Quiet Garden presentation.
When we are silent we make ourselves be still and listen to God. If we can stop all the thoughts leaping around in our mind then we might be able to hear if God speaks, but listening is difficult and it involves effort and requires much more than just external silence.
As one religious writer put it: ‘listening is a conscious, willed action, requiring alertness and vigilance… The obstacles to positive listening are numerous… The external noises of the world are as nothing compared with the din we make within ourselves.’
At home I have an area where I meditate, and besides a crucifix and an icon I have had a message to myself which reads ‘be quiet’. It’s there to help me quieten and still my own voice within my head.
One way to help this is to initially listen to the external noises – if we are outside it may be the rustling of the trees or the sound of the birds; if we are inside it may be the noise of a tap dripping or the house creaking or the sound of other activities going on away from us. Rather than feel that these interrupt our search for quiet and silence they can be absorbed and indeed listened to in their own right. If we listen even more deeply we might hear the sounds within our own bodies – the heartbeat, stomach gurgles and so on and deeper still than that there is the sound of creation a deep hum that links us to all of the created world…this is the sacred sound of ‘om’.
Some people when they really listen seem to hear God speak not literally and physically but in ways which make them feel that God is communicating with them. They can find themselves comforted, directed and challenged. This can be a rich experience, which gives a sense of the nearness of God. There are dangers of course in this because in our listening we can sometimes hear the voice of our own dreams and fantasies, or of our over-socialised conscious and built-in sense of duty, or even the subtle insinuations of evil, and call it the voice of God. Nevertheless, there are some who, by a true and self-critical listening, can discern God’s true utterance.
For others despite open-hearted listening over long periods they seem to be made differently and don’t hear any voice and are not able to discern any communication. Perhaps the explanation of this is that God’s usual ‘speech’ is not directed to our conscious mind but to our inner hidden selves. God’s conversation is with the secret heart. Listening, then, means ‘listening in’ and eavesdropping on the whispering of God to the heart, being aware that God is in communication with this deep inner self, though we may not know it. We may from time to time catch some echoes of this conversation but, more often, we’re just aware of the profound silence beneath which God is speaking in God’s own secret way.
So when we are silent and in prayerful silence we have to trust and have faith that this conversation is going on and that God will maintain it so that we go on listening whether we can overhear it or not. This is then a calm quiet waiting upon God trusting that God comes to us in God’s own way and time.
Julian of Norwich wrote: ‘pray inwardly; even if you do not enjoy it. It does good, though you feel nothing, see nothing.’ And we might add ‘hear nothing’.
And of course if we learn and practise our listening with God we will become better listeners with each other. This is the spiritual practice of the listening heart – speak only half as much as you listen; as Paul Tillich puts it: ‘The first duty of love is to listen.’
Various religious traditions have developed practices of deep spiritual listening focused on certain music. So for example the Islamic Middle-Eastern Sufi tradition has long established at its core the concept of attentive spiritual listening, or samāʿ, which involves training the mind to understand music and movement as manifestations of divine presence—and as paths to spiritual union with the divine Beloved.
The poet Rumi wrote in The Song of the Reed
Listen to the reed and the tale it tells,
how it sings of separation …
Whoever has been parted from his source
longs to return to that state of union.
Medieval European singers created plainchant to reflect on divine glory for the Christian ritual, and later developed multi-voiced compositions so that music could lead the listener into deeper connection and communion with God.