Sophia, A Philosopher’s Cosmological Beloved
You may call my love Sophia, but I call my love philosophy.
–Van Morrison, “A Sense of Wonder”
The GS wants to again draw your attention to one of the songs he featured in part 6 of his musical essay series “The Troubadours & The Beloved.” I was discussing a book on the troubadours by an author who travelled to southern France to research the controversial idea that in 12th-century Occitania of the troubadours there existed a mysterious love-cult which worshiped a feminine goddess; in fact, a Gnostic “Black Sophia,” who may have been the model for one of the most famous shrines dedicated to the “Black Madonna” in this very region of the south of France. I repeat the relevant passage by the author:
To Gnostics there was one all-embracing feminine wisdom, including both the virgin and the whore, which they called Sophia or the Holy Spirit. They identified her with the vision of John on Patmos of ‘a woman clothed with the sun and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars’ (Revelation 12.1) and they invoked her as ‘Lady’…. For the simple people, on the other hand, the Black Virgin no doubt continued to be what she had been for some thirty millennia, the manifestation of the Great Goddess.
This was an extremely important piece of evidence concerning an issue in my musical essays on the Beloved of the troubadours—namely, the question of just who is the Beloved. Is she a real flesh-and-blood woman, or could she be some sort of “Amina figure,” such as an angel or a goddess incarnate? One major answer to this fundamental ambiguity about the true identity of the troubadour’s Beloved came from the 12th-century Sufi poet and mystic philosopher, Ibn Arabi (1165-1240), which I presented in the second installment of my musical essay series. It seems the Sufi troubadour had composed and published some love poems to a mysterious young woman whom he encountered while doing his ritual circumambulations at Mecca, poems for which the Moslem authorities accused him of blasphemy. This young woman was of so rare a combination of learned teacher, master rhetorician, and striking beauty that she made his Sufi head spin! He relates how he felt a soft hand on his shoulder while doing his circumambulations, and then:
I turned around and found myself in the presence of a young girl, a princess from among the daughters of the Greeks. Never had I seen a woman more beautiful of face, softer of speech, more tender of heart, more spiritual in her ideas, more subtle in her symbolic allusions…. She surpassed all the people of her time in refinement of mind and cultivation, in beauty and in knowledge.... And I took her as a model for the inspiration of the poems contained in the present book, which are love poems, composed in suave, elegant phrases, although I was unable to express so much as a part of the emotion which my soul experienced and which the company of this young woman awakened in my heart, or of the generous love I felt, or of the memory which her unwavering friendship left in my memory, or of the grace of her mind or the modesty of her bearing, since she is the object of my quest and my hope.
Arabi goes on to identify this “princess from among the daughters of the Greeks” as none other than “Sophia,” the Greek name for “wisdom.” He points out that the verses that provoke her philosophical lesson are enigmatic, reminding, as he puts it again, of the “arcane language of our troubadours.” The Beloved was, in Arabi’s words, “a sublime and divine, essential and sacrosanct Wisdom, which manifested itself visibly to the author of these poems with such sweetness as to provoke in him joy and happiness, emotion and delight.” This is the mystic testimony of a 12th-century Sufi troubadour about his Beloved; to wit, she was an “angel” in human form.
Fast forward to the opening of my March 29th program, when I took the time before presenting my 7th musical essay in the series to make some commentary as to the reason why I chose the song by Eliza Gilkyson, “Emmanuelle,” the week before as one of the two songs following the author’s passage about the troubadour love-cult of the Black Sophia. I explained why I wrote an entire blog-post in order to explicate what I saw as the relationship between that song and the ancient notion of a feminine divine wisdom, known as “Sophia” (who, besides first being the personification of wisdom in the Greek philosophical tradition, was in the Christian-Gnostic tradition co-equal with God). In point of fact, my blog-post articulated why I understood “Emmanuelle” as another figure of Sophia. I followed it up with another blog-post to familiarize my listeners about Sophia aeterna, in order to give weight to my contention that Emmanuelle = Sophia. (I entitled it “Sophia, The Feminine Personification of Wisdom.”) That was some four weeks ago, and I haven’t had the need to bring up “Sophia” as the secret name for the troubadours’ beloved again.
Until this week, that is. The GS, in pursuing his post-graduate, life-long research into religion and philosophy, recently came upon a book by a philosopher of religion. As I hoped it would be, reading the first chapter one night was rewarding reading. But it wasn’t until near the end of the chapter, when the philosopher began describing his non-ordinary experiences in detail that the book became immensely rewarding, causing the me to dance around my study with it. Why? Because it ended on a note that was in fact in sync—in synchronicity—with the subject of my current musical essay series, “The Troubadours & The Beloved.” Thus, I realized that, strangely enough, reading this book was not a total deviation from but actually part of my on-going research into my favorite topic of the troubadours. So marvelous was this synchronicity of subject matter that the GS wants to share its significance with his audience.
In the introduction to the subject matter of his spiritual journey in search of enlightenment or liberation, the philosopher explains that he began his quest to find the answers to questions about how the universe works:
All my life I've had a passionate desire to understand how the universe works. Why are our lives the way they are? How come there is so much suffering in life? Is there a larger intelligence operating in the universe? And, if so, toward what end? What is the purpose and project of existence?
He goes on to describe his spiritual journey to enlightenment through controlled sessions of non-ordinary states of consciousness and mystical experience in the following way:
As this journey deepened, I found myself entering a spiraling love affair with this intelligence. A being so vast, I can only describe it by using the vocabulary of the divine. Even while these sessions themselves were repeatedly demonstrating how limited and childlike our historical perceptions of the divine have been…. I do not know the limits of this being and I hesitate to even call it a being at all. As I have experienced it, it is the fabric of existence itself. Think of it as the generative intelligence of our universe; the mind of the cosmos, both transcendent source and manifest body of existence beyond all categories of he or she, yet infinitely more than any “it”.
Okay, so if we stop here in his exposition, we appreciate that a trained philosopher, who taught academic courses in the university for most of his adult life, would naturally shy away from anthropomorphic terms for the divine, fully aware of the glaring limitations of humankind’s personifications of deity. The author even gives us an instructive footnote concerning this. “Though I will sometimes speak of this reality as the divine and use personal language for it, I am not in fact a theist. In my hands [as a philosopher of religion] the ‘divine’ does not reduce to the God of our monotheistic traditions. My metaphysical commitments run in the direction of monism and panentheism. My ‘God’ is the cosmos. I see all reality, both physical and spiritual reality, as the manifestation of a single intelligence and power, whose nature is beyond our capacity to fully fathom, but not beyond our capacity to experience to some degree.”
So far, so good, right? And yet, and yet, our expectations are upended in the very next sentence! Because in that sentence (after stating that this cosmic intelligence is “beyond all categories of he or she”) comes this utterly surprising description of his own experience with the “divine:”
Knowing that I could sustain the deepest intimacy with this intelligence only for a few hours on any given day and that I had no control over which session could become one of these magical days, I kept driving forward. When the communion opened, it was so intense that at the end of the day I would feel supremely fulfilled and at the same time achingly bereaved because I could not stay with my beloved. Everyone must choose a name for the absolute, a title that approximates its truth, power, and beauty. Though I will use many terms to describe it in this book, in my heart of hearts I call it ‘my Beloved’. Once held in her embrace, once dissolved into her radiant splendor, I was hers forever. I will be hers until my last breath—and after still. If my description tilts toward the feminine, it is because of two things: (1) the specific story of creation that emerged in this journey and (2) the love that reuniting with this reality awakened within me.
(Cf. Arabi about Sophia: “I was unable to express so much as a part of the emotion which my soul experienced and which the company of this young woman awakened in my heart ….”) I would highlight the philosopher’s description of his feelings about the “communion” with this Beloved: “I would feel supremely fulfilled and at the same time achingly bereaved because I could not stay with my beloved.” Highlight it, because his feelings mirror those of many of the troubadours describing the highs and lows, the joys and sorrows, of their communion with the Beloved, especially when it was what was called a “far-away” love.
For this questing philosopher, then, his “Beloved” is the entire cosmos, more specifically the “mind of the cosmos;” a divine intelligence, which he conceives of as feminine. Actually, this philosopher is evoking a very ancient idea. According to mythologist par excellence, Joseph Campbell, during the Neolithic period (beginning some 12,000 years ago) the Mother Goddess was the deity worshipped as the creator. “When you have a goddess as the creator, it’s her own very body that is the universe. She is identical with the universe and in Egypt you have the mother heavens nude, the goddess’s nude body is represented as the whole heavenly sphere.” Thus, for Campbell, who is in company with the host of feminist scholars in positing a “golden age of the goddess,” it would be natural for people trying to explain the wonders of the universe to look to the female figure as the explanation for what they saw in their own life. (Campbell observes that we can come to the real sanctity of the earth itself because that is the body of the goddess. “She is there. Your body is her body and there’s that kind of identity.” He also sees this ancient concept of the Goddess as the body of the earth resurrected under the name Gaia, which expresses the idea of earth as a living body, on which we depend for life.)
As for the GS himself, due to being academically trained to see beyond the anthropomorphic “masks of God” (and so appreciate the ontological distinction Hindu Philosophy makes between “Saguna Brahman,” who is “with attributes” and “Nirguna Brahman,” who is “without attributes), he personally favors what Einstein called “Spinoza’s God, the God of the Philosopher’s” over a personal God. However, he also recognizes that it’s impossible to love some abstract “fabric of existence” or “the ground of being” or, for that matter, “the mind of the cosmos” (which is why the Hindus can recognize a totally transcendent God while still worshipping their pantheon of personal, devotional gods), but a feminine deity who is the personification of “Divine Wisdom” is another story; indeed, another kind of love-story—as the medieval troubadours and the romancers tell it, or even as told by a modern philosopher, who desires to intimately know the cosmological wisdom of how the universe works:
Everyone must choose a name for the absolute, a title that approximates its truth, power, and beauty. Though I will use many terms to describe it in this book, in my heart of hearts I call it “my Beloved.”